Newly Public Domain Works 2023

Thousands of books, movies, songs and other creative works entered the public domain in the United States in 2023. Here is a partial list compiled by Cokato Minnesota attorney Thomas James.

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).

Sherlock Holmes

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.

Sherlock Holmes, public domain character in attorney Tom James article

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.

Steppenwolf

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.

Mosquitoes

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.

Amerika

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.

Metropolis

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.”

The Lodger

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.

Caveats

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.

The Top Copyright Cases of 2022

Cokato Minnesota attorney Tom James (“The Cokato Copyright Attorney”) presents his annual list of the top copyright cases of the year.

My selections for the top copyright cases of the year.

“Dark Horse”

Marcus Gray had sued Katy Perry for copyright infringement, claiming that her “Dark Horse” song unlawfully copied portions of his song, “Joyful Noise.” The district court held that the disputed series of eight notes appearing in Gray’s song were not “particularly unique or rare,” and therefore were not protected against infringement. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the series of eight notes was not sufficiently original and creative to receive copyright protection. Gray v. Hudson.

“Shape of You”

Across the pond, another music copyright infringement lawsuit was tossed. This one involved Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Sam Chokri’s “Oh Why.” In this case, the judge refused to infer from the similarities in the two songs that copyright infringement had occurred. The judge ruled that the portion of the song as to which copying had been claimed was “so short, simple, commonplace and obvious in the context of the rest of the song that it is not credible that Mr. Sheeran sought out inspiration from other songs to come up with it.” Sheeran v. Chokri.

Instagram images

Another case out of California, this one involves a lawsuit filed by photographers against Instagram, alleging secondary copyright infringement. The photographers claim that Instagram’s embedding tool facilitates copyright infringement by users of the website. The district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying he was bound by the so-called “server test” the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals announced in Perfect 10 v. Amazon. The server test says, in effect, that a website does not unlawfully “display” a copyrighted image if the image is stored on the original site’s server and is merely embedded in a search result that appears on a user’s screen. The photographers have an appeal pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the Court to reconsider its decision in Perfect 10. Courts in other jurisdictions have rejected Perfect 10 v. Amazon. The Court now has the option to either overrule Perfect 10 and allow the photographers’ lawsuit to proceed, or to re-affirm it, thereby creating a circuit split that could eventually lead to U.S. Supreme Court review. Hunley v. Instagram.

Tattoos

Is reproducing a copyrighted image in a tattoo fair use? That is a question at issue in a case pending in New York. Photographer Jeffrey Sedlik took a photograph of musician Miles Davis. Later, a tattoo artist allegedly traced a printout of it to create a stencil to transfer to human skin as a tattoo. Sedlik filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The judge analyzed the claims using the four “fair use” factors. Although the ultimate ruling was that fact issues remained to be decided by a jury, the court issued some important rulings in the course of making that ruling. In particular, the court ruled that affixing an image to skin is not necessarily a protected “transformative use” of an image. According to the court, it is for a jury to decide whether the image at issue in a particular case has been changed significantly enough to be considered “transformative.” It will be interesting to see how this case ultimately plays out, especially if it is still pending when the United States Supreme Court announces its decision in the Warhol case (See below). Sedlik v. Von Drachenberg.

Digital libraries

The book publishers’ lawsuit against Internet Archive, about which I wrote in a previous blog post, is still at the summary judgment stage. Its potential future implications are far-reaching. It is a copyright infringement lawsuit that book publishers filed in the federal district court for the Southern District of New York. The gravamen of the complaint is that Internet Archive allegedly has scanned over a million books and has made them freely available to the public via an Internet website without securing a license or permission from the copyright rights-holders. The case will test the “controlled digital lending” theory of fair use that was propounded in a white paper published by David R. Hansen and Kyle K. Courtney. They argued that distributing digitized copies of books by libraries should be regarded as the functional equivalent of lending physical copies of books to library patrons. Parties and amici have filed briefs in support of motions for summary judgment. An order on the motions is expected soon. The case is Hachette Book Group et al. v. Internet Archive.

Copyright registration

In Fourth Estate Public Benefits Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC, 139 S. Ct. 881, 889 (2019), the United States Supreme Court interpreted 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) to mean that a copyright owner cannot file an infringement claim in federal court without first securing either a registration certificate or an official notice of denial of registration from the Copyright Office. In an Illinois Law Review article, I argued that this imposes an unduly onerous burden on copyright owners and that Congress should amend the Copyright Act to abolish the requirement. Unfortunately, Congress has not done that. As I said in a previous blog post, Congressional inaction to correct a harsh law with potentially unjust consequences often leads to exercises of the judicial power of statutory interpretation to ameliorate those consequences. Unicolors v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz.

Unicolors, owner of the copyrights in various fabric designs, sued H&M Hennes & Mauritz (H&M), alleging copyright infringement. The jury rendered a verdict in favor of Unicolor, but H&M moved for judgment as a matter of law. H&M argued that Unicolors had failed to satisfy the requirement of obtaining a registration certificate prior to commencing suit. Although Unicolors had obtained a registration, H&M argued that the registration was not a valid one. Specifically, H&M argued that Unicolors had improperly applied to register multiple works with a single application. According to 37 CFR § 202.3(b)(4) (2020), a single application cannot be used to register multiple works unless all of the works in the application were included in the same unit of publication. The 31 fabric designs, H&M contended, had not all been first published at the same time in a single unit; some had been made available separately exclusively to certain customers. Therefore, they could not properly be registered together as a unit of publication.

The district court denied the motion, holding that a registration may be valid even if contains inaccurate information, provided the registrant did not know the information was inaccurate. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Court held that characterizing the group of works as a “unit of publication” in the registration application was a mistake of law, not a mistake of fact. The Court applied the traditional rule of thumb that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, in essence ruling that although a mistake of fact in a registration application might not invalidate the registration for purposes of the pre-litigation registration requirement, a mistake of law in an application will.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari. It reversed the Ninth Circuit Court’s reversal, thereby allowing the infringement verdict to stand notwithstanding the improper registration of the works together as a unit of publication rather than individually.

It is hazardous to read too much into the ruling in this case. Copyright claimants certainly should not interpret it to mean that they no longer need to bother with registering a copyright before trying to enforce it in court, or that they do not need to concern themselves with doing it properly. The pre-litigation registration requirement still stands (in the United States), and the Court has not held that it condones willful blindness of legal requirements. Copyright claimants ignore them at their peril.

Andy Warhol, Prince Transformer

I wrote about the Warhol case in a previous blog post. Basically, it is a copyright infringement case alleging that Lynn Goldsmith took a photograph of Prince in her studio and that Andy Warhol later based a series of silkscreen prints and pencil illustrations on it without a license or permission. The Andy Warhol Foundation sought a declaratory judgment that Warhol’s use of the photograph was “fair use.” Goldsmith counterclaimed for copyright infringement. The district court ruled in favor of Warhol and dismissed the photographer’s infringement claim. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the district court misapplied the four “fair use” factors and that the derivative works Warhol created do not qualify as fair use. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and heard oral arguments in October, 2022. A decision is expected next year.

Because this case gives the United States Supreme Court an opportunity to bring some clarity to the extremely murky “transformative use” area of copyright law, it is not only one of this year’s most important copyright cases, but it very likely will wind up being one of the most important copyright cases of all time. Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith.

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