There’s no better way to observe the dawn of a new year of the roaring 2020s than celebrating Public Domain Day. On January 1, 2022, cultural items in the archive dating from 1926 shed their copyright and made their proper full and proper entrance into society. In 2022, for the first time, a swath of 400,000 sound recordings published before 1923 will join the public domain thanks to the Music Modernization Act (MMA) passed in 2018.
The lion’s share of holdings in the National Jukebox, the Library of Congress’ archive of historical sound recordings, will become public domain, and it includes both popular music spanning the genres of jazz, folk, Broadway musical, ragtime, and blues, as well as spoken word. Before the MMA was passed, we would have had to wait until 2067 before these recordings were released to the public. Scott Joplin’s recorded work and Thomas Edison’s recordings are among the gems in this category. This means that musicians and DJs can start mixing tracks like Edison singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with fun bops like “Ramshackle Rag.” (Citizen DJ, a project spearheaded by innovator-in-residence at the Library of Congress Brian Foo, already plans to make these tunes easily accessible for anybody’s remixing needs.)
Also joining the public domain are novels from Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner (all the more fodder for comparisons of modernist prose coming to creative writing classes near you); A. A. Milne’s first Winnie the Pooh book (the second follows in 2024); and Langston Hughes’ debut poetry collection The Weary Blues. And that’s just skimming the surface of works that already enjoy decent acclaim — the introduction of new works into the public domain means that the next gem from our cultural heritage awaits rediscovery.
Copyright law is complicated and ever-changing, and what enters the public domain is complicated by the fact that copyright law varies from country to country. Before 1998, in the United States, any work 75 years or older graduated into the public domain. But that year, President Clinton signed the Copyright Term Extension Act, which lengthened the term by 20 years. For two decades, Public Domain Day was effectively canceled as the steady flow of new works into the commons was stemmed. On January 1, 2019, Public Domain Day returned, and scholars, archivists, artists, and more rejoiced at the possibility of bringing new creative possibilities to old stories, visual motifs, and ideas. Here’s to hoping that Congress doesn’t do anything rash this year to screw with the continued commemoration of this holiday, which is gaining recognition thanks to the advocacy efforts of Canadian activist Wallace J. McLean and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig.
“Poetry can only be made out of other poems, novels out of other novels,” critic Northrop Frye once wrote. Precisely that can be done with an expanding set of materials without the fear of legal repercussions. Unburdened of their copyrights, public domain poetry and books will be made available on Internet platforms like Google Books. They can be blogged and reshared as people wish, and research shows that books that enter the public domain are cheaper and get more circulation. Scenes from 1926 movies can be shared and appropriated, and music from that year can now be repurposed and used without the payment of royalties. And film preservationists, who worry that current copyright law oversees the physical disintegration of old films, can now restore films from 1926.
The following is a very incomplete list of cultural goods that will have made it into the public domain in the United States as of January 1:
- A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, decorations by E. H. Shepard
- Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
- Dorothy Parker, Enough Rope
- Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues
- T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
- Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
- Arthur Conan Doyle, The Land of Mist
- Edna Ferber, Show Boat
- William Faulkner, Soldiers’ Pay
- Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy
- D. H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent
- H. L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy
- Vita Sackville-West’s The Land
- Franz Kafka’s The Castle
- Felix Salten’s Bambi, A Life in the Woods
- F. W. Murnau’s Faust
- Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler
- Victor Sjöström’s The Scarlet Letter
- Sam Taylor’s For Heaven’s Sake
- Fred Niblo’s The Temptress
- Henry King’s The Winning of Barbara Worth
- Harry A. Pollard’s The Cohens and Kellys
- George Fitzmaurice’s The Son of the Sheik
- Herbert Brenon’s The Great Gatsby
- Ray Henderson and Morton Dixon’s Bye Bye Black Bird
- George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin’s Someone To Watch Over Me
- Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II, George Gershwin, and Herbert Stothart’s Cossack Love Song
- Joseph “King” Oliver’s Snag It
- Zora Neale Hurston’s Color Struck
- Bertolt Brecht’s Man Equals Man
- Opera: Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot
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