Thousands of books, movies, songs and other creative works enter the public domain in the United States this year. Here is a partial list. (Click here for last year’s list).
Last year, it was Winnie the Pooh. This year, Sherlock Holmes officially enters the public domain. Pooh’s release from copyright protection sparked some creative uses of A. Milne’s fictional bear, from a comic strip in which Pooh Bear appears completely naked (i.e., without his red shirt on) to a slasher film called Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, coming soon to a theater near you.
Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, have actually been in the public domain for a long time, since Arthur Conan Doyle began publishing stories about them in the late nineteenth century. The copyrights in those works had already expired when Congress extended copyright terms in 1998. Legal controversies continued to arise, however, over which elements of those characters were still protected by copyright. New elements that were added in later stories potentially could still be protected by copyright even if the copyrights in previous stories in the series had expired. Now, however, the copyright in the last two Sherlock Holmes stories Doyle wrote have expired. Therefore, it appears that all elements of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are in the public domain now.
One can only imagine what creative uses people will make of the Holmes and Watson characters now that they are officially in the public domain, too.
The Tower Treasure (Hardy Boys)
The Tower Treasure is the first book in the Hardy Boys series of mystery books that Franklin W. Dixon wrote. As of this year, it is in the public domain.
Again, however, only the elements of the characters and the story in that particular book are in the public domain now. Elements that appeared only in later volumes in the series might still be protected by copyright.
Herman Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf, in the original German, is now in the public domain. This version is to be distinguished from English translations of the work, which might still be protected by copyright as derivative works. It is also to be distinguished from the classic rock band by the same name. It is always important to distinguish between trademark and other kinds of uses of a term.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about an investigation into the lives and deaths of people involved in the collapse of a Peruvian rope bridge has now entered the public domain.
William Faulkner’s satiric novel enters the public domain this year. This work is to be distinguished from the insect by the same name. The insect, annoyingly, has been in the public domain for centuries.
The Gangs of New York
Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York is now in the public domain.
Franz Kafka’s Amerika (also known as Lost In America) — was published posthumously in 1927. It is now in the public domain.
The Jazz Singer
The Jazz Singer is a 1927 American film and one of the first to feature sound. Warner Brothers produced it using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system and it featured six songs performed by Al Jolson. The short story on which it is based, “The Day of Atonement,” has already been in the public domain for some time. Now the film is, too.
The Battle of the Century
The Laurel and Hardy film, The Battle of the Century, is now in the public domain. Other Laurel and Hardy films, however, may still be protected by copyright.
Science fiction fans are most likely familiar with this 1927 German science fiction silent movie written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang based on von Harbou’s 1925 novel. It was one of the first feature-length movies in that genre. The film is also famous for the phrase, “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller has entered the public domain.
“We All Scream for Ice Cream”
The song, “I Scream; You Scream; We All Scream for Ice Cream” is now in the public domain. Don’t worry if you uttered this phrase prior to January 1, 2023. Titles and short phrases are not protected by copyright. Now, it would be a different story if you’ve publicly performed the song, or published or recorded the song and/or the lyrics. Merely uttering those words, however, is not a crime.
“Puttin’ on the Ritz”
This song was originally written by Irving Berlin in 1927. Therefore it is now in the public domain. Taco released a performance of a cover version of this song in 1982. This version of the song made it all the way to number 53 in VH1’s 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 80’s special. Note that even if the original musical composition and lyrics are in the public domain now, recorded performances of the song by particular artists may still be protected. The copyrights in a musical composition and a recording of a performance of it are separate and distinct things. Don’t go copying Taco’s recorded performance of the song without permission. Please.
“My Blue Heaven”
This song, written by Walter Donaldson and George Whiting, is now in the public domain. It was used in the Ziegfeld Follies and was a big hit for crooner Gene Austin. It is not to be confused with the 1990 Steve Martin film with that name, which is still protected by copyright.
“The Best Things In Life Are Free”
This song was written by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson for the 1927 musical Good News. Many performers have covered it since then. The (ahem) good news is that it is now in the public domain.
The works described in this blog post have entered the public domain under U.S. copyright law. The terms of copyrights in other countries are not the same. In the European Union, for example, Herman Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf is still protected by copyright as of January 1, 2023.
And again, remember that even if a work has entered the public domain, new elements first appearing in a derivative work based on it might still be protected by copyright.
The featured image in this article is “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” It appeared in The Strand Magazine in December, 1891. The original caption was “The pipe was still between his lips.” The drawing is in the public domain.