Did you know that New Year’s Day was not the only holiday that we celebrated yesterday? It wasn’t even the best holiday. In the past few years, America has resurrected a much-loved New Year’s tradition, one that I happily observe as a creative person and a connoisseur of old literature and film. That tradition is Public Domain Day.
The history of copyright law is full of twists and turns, leaps forward and major setbacks. Rather than go into all that and risk the ire of Corporations That Shall Not Be Named, I will instead explain the current state of affairs. In the United States, a copyrighted work enters the public domain 95 years after its release. When a work enters public domain, that means it belongs to the people: it can be legally shared/distributed by any means, and it can be used as inspiration for new creative endeavors.
To make the whole process easier, US law says that copyrighted works enter public domain on January 1st of the year that their copyright expires. In 2023, for example, all the works that were copyrighted in 1927 go public. What sort of works does that include? In the interest of spreading Public Domain Day awareness, I’ve compiled an abbreviated list of this year’s most interesting entries.
Metropolis: This German sci-fi epic from director Fritz Lang casts a long shadow over the rest of its genre and film in general. And now there are endless possibilities for reinterpreting it!
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: This is Arthur Conan Doyle’s last collection of Holmes stories. Now that its copyright has expired, the entire Holmes canon is now public domain. This is bigger news than you might think because the Doyle estate has tried to litigate Holmes adaptations as recently as 2020, using the stories in this collection as the basis for their lawsuit. But now the great detective can get into whatever crazy scenarios people imagine for him, and no one can make them stop.
Wings: This romantic drama about WWI pilots is best known as the first recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it’s also got quite the impressive tracking shot.
Sunrise: After coming to America, German director F.W. Murnau made this Expressionist drama about a married couple rekindling their love during an adventure in the big city. Often considered one of the best films of all time, it won a special Oscar for “Unique and Artistic Picture.”
The Jazz Singer: This Al Jolson vehicle about a musician torn between his passions and his faith is famous for two reasons: being the first motion picture with synchronized sound, and having a lot of blackface.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog: A young up-and-comer named Alfred Hitchcock directed this thriller about the hunt for a serial killer who may or may not be hiding in a rented London flat.
To The Lighthouse: A novel by Virginia Woolf about a family grappling with death and legacy. Woolf experiments with perception, point of view and stream-of-consciousness narration, similar to her previous novel Mrs. Dalloway.
The Big Four: The fifth Hercule Poirot book by Agatha Christie, in which the famous Belgian detective is drawn into a sprawling adventure filled with espionage and international intrigue.
The Tower Treasure: This children’s mystery novel, published under the pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon, introduced the Hardy Boys to the world.
“I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Ice Cream”: Bet you didn’t know this was copyrighted, huh?
For a more comprehensive list of works entering the public domain this year, as well as a more in-depth history of US copyright law, check out this article from the Duke University School of Law. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little infodump!
I was completely unaware of this yearly release. The brief descriptions were interesting and informative. Thanks for this timely contribution to my knowledge.