January 1 is the annual Public Domain Day, meaning a large collection of historically significant literature, films, artwork, and photojournalism is now totally accessible for public use. The Public Domain Review has created a special advent calendar countdown spotlighting their top picks in anticipation of the collection’s release date.
As copyright law varies nation by nation, the three major bodies of work joining the public domain in 2023 include contributions from creators who died in 1972 (copyright term: life plus 50 years), contributions from creators who died in 1952 (copyright term: life plus 70 years), and films and books released in 1927 to the United States.
The American public can look forward to unbridled access to Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” — his posthumously published, incomplete first novel. Written between 1911 and 1914 and published in 1927, “Amerika” chronicles the bizarre, aimless meandering of a 16-year-old European migrant named Karl Roßmann. Despite Kafka’s abrupt abandonment of the project, the novel is considered one of his more realistic and humorous works, leaving a wake of uncertain optimism about Karl’s path as he tries to make sense of personal agency in the last chapter. The untranslated version can be accessed via zeno.org.
Another notable contribution to the public domain is the extensive and diverse photojournalism of Frances Benjamin Johnston, who passed away in 1952. Johnston, whose works are now accessible through Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress, had a near 60-year-long career during which she documented architecture of the American South, produced various bodies of work capturing Black American and Indigenous peoples at the beginning of the 20th century, and routinely advocated for exposure of and employment opportunities for women in the arts and journalism spheres.
The works of renowned Indian painter Jamini Roy have joined Wikimedia Commons as well. Roy, hailing from a middle-class, art-aligned Bengali family, was a student at the Government College of Art in Kolkata under the guidance of esteemed and influential painter Abanindranath Tagore. Starting out as a Classical nude painter and commissioned portrait artist, Roy abandoned said endeavors and cast aside Western influences to develop an art style rooted in Bengali culture. Roy cultivated a stylized painting language derived from Bengali folk and tribal art practices — most specifically, the decisive and broad brushstrokes featured in the Kalighat Pat scroll-painting originating from the Kalighat Kali Temple.
Roy, who passed in 1972, was presented with the Padma Bhushan award in 1954, and was said to have produced over 20,000 paintings in his 85 years of life.
On the other hand, and rather surprising considering how ubiquitous his work already was, M. C. Escher’s enigmatic, mathematical print works inspired by nature, architecture, and have entered the public domain for countries adhering to the copyright term of life plus 50 years. Considering my history of emotional terrorism from kitchen table math homework sessions with my parents, it honestly speaks to Escher’s talents that I’m able to appreciate the geometric absurdities of his work without bursting into tears. Apparently, I’m not alone in this as Escher’s work generated international interest and appreciation, but only near the end of his life. The Dutch artist was only celebrated on a large scale just two years before his death.
Nevertheless, grade school math teachers everywhere must be wringing their hands in excitement of being able to print their own Escher classroom posters instead of purchasing them.
These are just four of dozens of works joining the public domain this year. Honorable mentions include Maria Montessori’s life works on the philosophies of childhood education, newfound access to the archives of Edward S. Curtis’s photography documenting Indigenous life in the American West, and Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1927).