Why it matters: When creative works go into the public domain (PD), exclusive intellectual property rights cease to exist. Users and creators can do (almost) anything they want with such content, and 2023 is a particularly important year for a collection of classics released under the burden of copyright.
On January 1, 2023, the world of creativity returned to the past… until 1927. On this day, thousands of books, films and musical compositions became public domain after a long stay in copyright. area. Many classical works can now be freely distributed and accessed, opening the door to modern interpretations without fear of lawsuits or additional costs.
As explained by the Duke Law School Center for the Study of the Public Domain, works that have become public domain can be distributed legally without permission or payment. Public cinemas can show classical films, youth orchestras can publicly perform music, and online repositories such as the Internet Archive or Google Books can make works fully available online. Access to cultural materials that might otherwise have been lost to history has also been restored, which promotes reuse and creativity in the same way copyright laws are designed to do it on paper.
Famous works from 1927, which are now PD, include “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, the Last Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and works by Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Hermann Hesse and Franz Kafka. Also available are Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, a sci-fi swan song of the silent film era, a musical composition aptly titled “The Best Things in Life are Free” from the musical “Good News” and much, much more.
While books and films are generally available in their original format, PD music compositions include sheet music and lyrics, but not actual recordings of songs that are subject to separate copyrights.
The “release” of the Sherlock Holmes stories is particularly noteworthy because the recent copyright extension has led to legal clashes between the curators of the author’s estate and contemporary works such as the Netflix spin-off series Enola Holmes.
The 1927 works were supposed to become public domain in 2003 after they had been copyrighted for 75 years, but the Copyright Extension Act approved by Congress extended the copyright term to 95 years.
A new milestone in the public domain is expected to come on January 1, 2024, when the first appearance of Mickey Mouse will be released from Disney’s copyright. This will happen at least in the US; Canada recently approved a new copyright extension for the next 20 years.