Culture

Public Domain Day 2021

Montage of 1925 Works

On January 1, 2021, copyrighted works from 1925 entered the US public domain,1 where they will be free for all to use and build upon. These works include books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, and Franz Kafka’s The Trial (in the original German), silent films featuring Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, and music ranging from the jazz standard Sweet Georgia Brown to songs by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, W.C. Handy, and Fats Waller.

This is not just the famous last line from The Great Gatsby. It also encapsulates what the public domain is all about. A culture is a continuing conversation between present and past. On Public Domain Day, we all have a “green light,” in keeping with the Gatsby theme, to use one more year of that rich cultural past, without permission or fee.

Works from 1925 were supposed to go into the public domain in 2001, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years.2 Now the wait is over.

In 2021, there is a lot to celebrate. 1925 brought us some incredible culture. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. The New Yorker magazine was founded. The literature reflected both a booming economy, whose fruits were unevenly distributed, and the lingering upheaval and tragedy of World War I. The culture of the time reflected all of those contradictory tendencies. The BBC’s Culture website suggested that 1925 might be “the greatest year for books ever,” and with good reason. It is not simply the vast array of famous titles. The stylistic innovations produced by books such as Gatsby, or The Trial, or Mrs. Dalloway marked a change in both the tone and the substance of our literary culture, a broadening of the range of possibilities available to writers, while characters such as Jay Gatsby, Hemingway’s Nick Adams, and Clarissa Dalloway still resonate today.

How will people celebrate this trove of cultural material? The Internet Archive will add books, movies, music, and more to its online library. HathiTrust will make tens of thousands of titles from 1925 available in its digital repository. Google Books will offer the full text of books from that year, instead of showing only snippet views or authorized previews. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can afford to publicly perform, or rearrange, the music. Educators and historians can share the full cultural record. Creators can legally build on the past—reimagining the books, making them into films, adapting the songs.

Here are some of the works that will be entering the public domain in 2021. (To find more material from 1925, you can visit the Catalogue of Copyright Entries.)

Books

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  • Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time
  • Franz Kafka, The Trial (in German)
  • Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
  • John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
  • Alain Locke, The New Negro (collecting works from writers including W.E.B. du Bois, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Eric Walrond)
  • Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith
  • Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys
  • Aldous Huxley, Those Barren Leaves
  • W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
  • Dorothy Scarborough, On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs
  • Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction
  • Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, A Daughter of the Samurai

Films3

  • Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman
  • The Merry Widow
  • Stella Dallas
  • Buster Keaton’s Go West
  • His People
  • Lovers in Quarantine
  • Pretty Ladies
  • The Unholy Three

(Yes, there was a film called Lovers in Quarantine, though it was a comedy, and they only had to quarantine for a week.)

Music

  • Always, by Irving Berlin
  • Sweet Georgia Brown, by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard & Kenneth Casey
  • Works by Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” including Army Camp Harmony Blues (with Hooks Tilford) and Shave ’Em Dry (with William Jackson)
  • Looking for a Boy, by George & Ira Gershwin (from the musical Tip-Toes)
  • Manhattan, by Lorenz Hart & Richard Rodgers
  • Ukulele Lady, by Gus Kahn & Richard Whiting
  • Yes Sir, That’s My Baby, by Gus Kahn & Walter Donaldson
  • Works by ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton, including Shreveport Stomps and Milenberg Joys (with Paul Mares, Walter Melrose, & Leon Roppolo)
  • Works by W.C. Handy, including Friendless Blues (with Mercedes Gilbert), Bright Star of Hope (with Lillian A. Thorsten), and When the Black Man Has a Nation of His Own (with J.M. Miller)
  • Works by Duke Ellington, including Jig Walk and With You (both with Joseph “Jo” Trent)
  • Works by ‘Fats’ Waller, including Anybody Here Want To Try My Cabbage (with Andrea “Andy” Razaf), Ball and Chain Blues (with Andrea “Andy” Razaf), and Campmeetin’ Stomp
  • Works by Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” including Dixie Flyer Blues, Tired of Voting Blues, and Telephone Blues
  • Works by Lovie Austin, including Back Biting Woman’s Blues, Southern Woman’s Blues, and Tennessee Blues
  • Works by Sidney Bechet, including Waltz of Love (with Spencer Williams), Naggin’ at Me (with Rousseau Simmons), and Dreams of To-morrow (with Rousseau Simmons)
  • Works by Fletcher Henderson, including Screaming the Blues (with Fay Barnes)
  • Works by Sippie Wallace, including Can Anybody Take Sweet Mama’s Place (with Clarence Williams)
  • Works by Mrs. H.H.A. (Amy) Beach, including Lord of the Worlds Above, Op. 109 (words by Isaac Watts, 1674–1748), The Greenwood, Op. 110 (words by William Lisle Bowles, 1762–1850), The Singer, Op. 117 (words by Muna Lee, 1895–1965), and Song in the Hills, Op. 117, No. 3 (words by Muna Lee, 1895–1965)

Note that only the musical compositions referred to above are entering the public domain. Subsequent arrangements, orchestrations, or recordings of those compositions, such as the recording of Sweet Georgia Brown by The Beatles and Tony Sheridan, might still be copyrighted. You are free to copy, perform, record, or adapt the composition, but may need permission to use a specific recording of it.4

We have featured some influential Black artists on this list because they deserve particular recognition. While it is worth celebrating the entry of their works into the public domain, it is also necessary to realize that not all artists were able to benefit from the copyright system during the copyright term. It would be impossible to overstate the contribution of Black musicians to American music. Yet these artists were routinely excluded from the copyright system, either because of racist business-practices, legal formalities that disproportionately affected minority musicians, or unequal access to the tools of the law themselves. Many never received credit or compensation for their songs. The artists above were unusual in that they actually had works attributed to them, rather than being simply stolen—evidence of their remarkable ingenuity in the face of a colossally unfair system. But the fact that they received credit does not mean that they were fairly compensated for their work. Discrimination, segregation, lopsided contracts, and an exclusionary music business deprived many of these musicians—Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, and others—of the full payment their work so richly deserved.5

Why celebrate the public domain? Rediscovering the past, nurturing the future

A wellspring for future creativity. The goal of copyright is to promote creativity, and the public domain plays a central role in doing so. Copyright law gives authors important rights that encourage creativity and distribution. But it also ensures that those rights last for a “limited time,” so that when they expire, works can go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build upon their inspirations. As explained by the Supreme Court:

[Copyright] is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors by the provision of special reward, and to allow the public access to the products of their genius after the limited period of exclusive control has expired.

Sony v. Universal (1984)

In 2021, anyone can use these works as raw material for their own creations, without fear of a lawsuit. What kinds of things will people do with public domain works? In 2020, jazz composers and arrangers David Berger and Chuck Israels released The Public Domain Song Anthology. As described in the book’s announcement, it collects 348 songs that can be “studied, performed, adapted, and shared without constraint.” Better yet, “contributions by Berger and Israels have been gifted to the public domain as well, which will help to both preserve and give new life to the rich legacy of these songs—many of which are at risk of being forgotten or overlooked.” For a preview of the songs entering the public domain in 1925, listen to the excellent Bob Schwartz quartet perform a medley of songs from 1925. Bravo! Other reuses inspired by the public domain include Techdirt’s annual public domain game jam that invites designers to create games based on newly public domain works, and the Internet Archive’s contest for the best short films using works set to enter the public domain.

The Great(er) Gatsby? After 95 years of exclusivity, The Great Gatsby is now entering the public domain, where it will be freely available to the next Fitzgerald…. What might future creators do with The Great Gatsby? They could make it into a film, or opera, or musical. Importantly, they could do so even if they did not have the financial resources that were required to license the book for the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Baz Luhrmann. For future filmmakers The Great Gatsby will be as free as…. Romeo and Juliet. But the public domain does not just bring financial freedom, it also provides cultural leeway. Someone could reimagine the story with a more inclusive cast, or set in a different era. They could reinterpret it, tell it from the perspective of Myrtle or Jordan, or make prequels and sequels. In fact, novelist Michael Farris Smith is slated to release Nick, a Gatsby prequel telling the story of Nick Carraway’s life before he moves to West Egg, on January 5, 2021. As explained in a New York Times editorial:

When a work enters the public domain it means the public can afford to use it freely, to give it new currency… [public domain works] are an essential part of every artist’s sustenance, of every person’s sustenance.6

Looking toward the book’s entry into the public domain, Blake Hazard, Fitzgerald’s great-granddaughter, was reflective: “We’re just very grateful to have had it under copyright, not just for the rather obvious benefits, but to try and safeguard the text, to guide certain projects and try to avoid unfortunate ones. We’re now looking to a new period and trying to view it with enthusiasm, knowing some exciting things may come.” Just as Shakespeare’s works have given us everything from 10 Things I Hate About You and Kiss Me Kate (from The Taming of the Shrew) to West Side Story (from Romeo and Juliet), who knows what The Great Gatsby might inspire? As with Shakespeare, the ability to freely reimagine the iconic works from 1925 may spur a range of creativity, from the serious to the whimsical, and in doing so allow the authors’ legacies to endure.

Access to our cultural heritage

The public domain also enables access to cultural materials that might otherwise be lost to history. 1925 was a long time ago. The vast majority of works from 1925 are out of circulation. When they enter the public domain in 2021, anyone can make them available online, where we can discover, enjoy, and breathe new life into them. (Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print—see here, here, and here.) The works listed above are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more forgotten works are waiting to be rediscovered.

Unfortunately, the fact that works from 1925 are legally available does not mean they are actually available. After 95 years, many of these works are already lost or literally disintegrating (as with old films7 and recordings), evidence of what long copyright terms do to the conservation of cultural artifacts. For example, sequences that were shot in two-tone Technicolor from two of the films above, The Merry Widow and Pretty Ladies, are apparently lost. For the material that has survived, however, the long-awaited entry into the public domain is still something to celebrate.

The invisible public domain

Many of the works featured above are famous; that is why we included them. Their copyright holders benefited from 20 more years of copyright because the works had enduring popularity, and were still earning royalties. But when Congress extended the copyright term for works like The Great Gatsby, it also did so for all of the works whose commercial viability had long ended. For the vast majority—probably 99%—of works from 1925, no copyright holder financially benefited from continued copyright. Yet they remained off limits, for no good reason. (A Congressional Research Service report indicated that only around 2% of copyrights between 55 and 75 years old retain commercial value. After 75 years, that percentage is even lower. Most older works are “orphan works,” where the copyright owner cannot be found at all.)

The story of Hitler’s copyright

There were also some truly odious works from 1925, most notably Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which was actually the subject of a fascinating copyright story.8 A young reporter named Alan Cranston, who later became a United States Senator, had read the German-language version of the book, and was surprised to see a bowdlerized translation of it circulating in the US. This English-language version had removed some of the most hateful and terrifying parts of the book, including Hitler’s plan for Nazi domination. So, in Cranston’s words, he prepared a “Reader’s Digest-like version (showing) the worst of Hitler” that included “every important point, every important idea Hitler presented,” but “eliminated his long-winded digressions, and cut out much of the endless repetition,” and added annotations showing Hitler’s “propaganda and distortions.” Cranston pledged no royalties to Hitler, and promised that any profits would go to help refugees from Hitler’s Reich. The unauthorized translation was 10 cents, and sold a half million copies in 10 days. It was 1939.

While Cranston had exposed Hitler’s evil, his unauthorized translation had also undercut the market for the authorized and sanitized version. He was sued for copyright infringement, and lost in court. “No damages were assessed, but we had to stop selling the book,” Cranston remembered. “But we did wake up a lot of Americans to the Nazi threat.”

More Works!

Technically, many works from 1925 may already be in the public domain because the copyright owners did not comply with the “formalities” that used to be necessary for copyright protection.9 Back then, your work went into the public domain if you did not include a copyright notice—e.g. “Copyright 1925 Virginia Woolf”—when publishing it, or if you did not renew the copyright after 28 years. Current copyright law no longer has these requirements. But, even though those works might technically be in the public domain, as a practical matter the public often has to assume they’re still copyrighted (or risk a lawsuit) because the relevant copyright information is difficult to find—older records can be fragmentary, confused, or lost. That’s why Public Domain Day is so significant. On January 1, 2021, the public will know that works published in 1925 are free for use without tedious or inconclusive research.

In an abundance of caution, our lists above primarily include works where we were able to track down the renewal data suggesting that they are still in-copyright through the end of 2020, and affirmatively entering the public domain in 2021. However, there were many exciting works from 1925 for which we could not locate renewals. They will also be in the public domain in 2021, but may have entered the public domain decades ago due to lack of renewal.

Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer performing at UCLA in 1960.

Some authors choose to dedicate their works to the public domain before the end of the copyright term. In 2020, musician (and mathematician) Tom Lehrer, who became famous for his satirical songs in the 1950s and 1960s, put all of his lyrics and original compositions into the public domain. You can find them here. (Artists who wish to put their work in the public domain can do so using Creative Commons’ CC0 tool.)

What Could Have Been

Works from 1925 are finally entering the public domain, after a 95-year copyright term. However, under the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1964 would be entering the public domain this year. They range from the films Goldfinger and Mary Poppins, to the children’s classics The Giving Tree, Harriett the Spy, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to The Rolling Stones’ debut album and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, and much more. Have a look at some of the others. In fact, since copyright used to come in renewable terms of 28 years, and 85% of authors did not renew, 85% of the works from 1992 might be entering the public domain! Imagine what the great libraries of the world—or just internet hobbyists—could do: digitizing those holdings, making them available for education and research, for pleasure and for creative reuse.

It's a Wonderful Public Domain

It’s a Wonderful Public Domain. . . .

What happens when works enter the public domain? Sometimes, wonderful things. The 1947 film It’s A Wonderful Life entered the public domain in 1975 because its copyright was not properly renewed after the first 28-year term. The film had been a flop on release, but thanks to its public domain status, it became a holiday classic. Why? Because TV networks were free to show it over and over again during the holidays, making the film immensely popular. But then copyright law reentered the picture. . . . In 1993, the film’s original copyright holder, capitalizing on a recent Supreme Court case, reasserted copyright based on its ownership of the film’s musical score and the short story on which the film was based (the film itself is still in the public domain). Ironically, a film that only became a success because of its public domain status was pulled back into copyright.

Want to learn more about the public domain? Here is the legal background on how we got our current copyright terms (including summaries of recent court cases), why the public domain matters, and answers to Frequently Asked Questions. You can also read James Boyle’s book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008)—naturally, you can read the full text of The Public Domain online at no cost and you are free to copy and redistribute it for non-commercial purposes. You can also read “In Ambiguous Battle: The Promise (and Pathos) of Public Domain Day,” an article by Center Director Jennifer Jenkins revealing the promise and the limits of various attempts to reverse the erosion of the public domain, and a short article in the Huffington Post celebrating a previous Public Domain Day.


1 In 2019, published works entered the US public domain for the first time since 1998. However, in the interim, a small subset of works—unpublished works that were not registered with the Copyright Office before 1978—had been entering the public domain after a life plus 70 copyright term. In 2021, unpublished works from authors who died in 1950 will go into the public domain. But, because these works were never published, potential users are much less likely to encounter them. In addition, it is difficult to determine whether works were “published” for copyright purposes. Therefore, this site focuses on the thousands of published works that are finally entering the public domain. Please note that unpublished works that were properly registered with the Copyright Office in 1925 are also entering the public domain after a 20 year wait—for those works, copyright was secured on the date of registration.
  The copyright term for older works is different in other countries. In the EU, works from authors who died in 1950—including George Orwell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and George Bernard Shaw—will go into the public domain in 2021 after a life plus 70 year term. In Canada, works of authors who died in 1970—including E.M. Forster, Rube Goldberg, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin—will enter the public domain after a life plus 50 year term.

2 The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act gave works published from 1923 through 1977 a 95-year term. They enter the public domain on January 1 after the conclusion of the 95th year, so as of 2021, works from 1925 and before are in the public domain. Works published through 1977 had to meet certain requirements to be eligible for the 95-year term—they all had to be published with a copyright notice, and works from before 1964 also had to have their copyrights renewed after the initial 28-year term. Foreign works from 1925 are still copyrighted in the US until 2021 if 1) they complied with US notice and renewal formalities, 2) they were published in the US within 30 days of publication abroad, or 3) if neither of these are true, they were still copyrighted in their home country as of 1/1/96.

3 Film buffs may notice that some well-known films from 1925—including The Lost World and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush—are not on this list. This is because their copyrights were not renewed after the first 28-year term.

4 The list of public domain music refers to the “musical composition”—the underlying music and lyrics—not the sound recordings of those compositions. Federal copyright did not used to cover sound recordings from before 1972 (though pre-1972 sound recordings were protected under some states’ laws). However, a new law from 2018 called the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”) has federalized copyright for pre-1972 sound recordings, in order to clear up the confusing patchwork of state law protection. Recordings from 1925 will enter the public domain in 2026. Importantly however, unlike the rest of copyright law, the MMA allows for uses of orphan works: if those older recordings are not being commercially exploited, there is a process for lawfully engaging in noncommercial uses. For more information about this law, please see the Copyright Office’s summary. While musical compositions are still copyrighted, there is a “compulsory license” that allows people to make recordings if they pay a standard royalty and comply with the license terms. However, this compulsory license doesn’t cover printing sheet music, making public performances, synchronizing audio with video, or making “derivative works.” And, of course, it requires payment. Public domain compositions can be freely recorded.

5 To learn more about the unequal treatment of Black artists, you can read the excellent scholarship of Professor Kevin J. Greene, including Copyright, Culture & (and) Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection and “Copynorms,” Black Cultural Production, and the Debate over African-American Reparations; Professor Olufunmilayo Arewa, including From J.C. Bach to Hip Hop: Musical Borrowing, Copyright and Cultural Context, Blues Lives: Promise and Perils of Musical Copyright and Writing Rights: Copyright’s Visual Bias and African American Music; and Professor Lateef Mtima, including Intellectual Property, Entrepreneurship and Social Justice: From Swords to Ploughshares.

6 See Keeping Copyright in Balance, (February 21, 1998).

7 Many silent films were intentionally destroyed by the studios because they no longer had apparent value. Other older films have disintegrated while preservationists waited for them to enter the public domain, so that they could legally digitize them. (There is a narrow provision allowing some restorations, but it is extremely limited.) The Librarian of Congress estimates that more than 80% of films from the 1920s has already decayed beyond repair. Endangered film footage includes not only studio productions, but also works of historical value, such as newsreels, anthropological and regional films, rare footage documenting daily life for ethnic minorities, and advertising and corporate shorts. (For more information see here.)

8 We were unable to locate a copyright renewal for Mein Kampf, suggesting that it may have entered the US public domain after the initial 28-year term instead of going into the public domain in 2021.

9 Millions of books published from 1925–1963 are actually in the public domain because the copyright owners did not renew the rights. Efforts have been underway to unlock this “secret” public domain, but compiling a definitive list of those titles is a daunting task. The relevant registration and renewal information is in the 450,000-page Catalog of Copyright Entries (“CCE”). Currently there is no way to reliably search the entire CCE, but thankfully, the New York Public Library is in the midst of converting the CCE into a machine-searchable format. Even after this is complete, however, confirming that works without apparent renewals are in the public domain involves additional complexities. As of September 2019, the HathiTrust Copyright Review Program had completed this process with 506,989 US publications, and determined that 302,915 (59.7%) are in the public domain, and can therefore be made available online. The work of the New York Public Library, HathiTrust, and other groups continues, with the goal of opening these public domain books to the public.


Special thanks to our tireless and talented research maven and website guru Balfour Smith for building this site and compiling the list of works from 1925.

Public Domain Day 2021 by Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.