Newly Public Domain Works

The Cokato Copyright Attorney shares excerpts from selected works that are in the public domain now.

by Minnesota attorney Thomas James (not Ernest Hemingway, the guy in the picture)

I am, of course, late with this. Where other writers have simply listed works by author, title and description, however, this article includes quotations from them. Does it get any better than this? I think not. 

Why are they public domain now?

Copyright protection is not eternal. It only lasts for the number of years specified by law. After that, the work is said to have entered the public domain, meaning that anyone may copy, distribute, perform, display or make new works from it.

In the United States, the U.K., Russia, and most of the European Union, a copyright lasts for 70 years after the author’s death. Accordingly, the works of authors who died in 1951 are now in the public domain. In Canada and most of Asia and Africa, copyrights last for 50 years after the author’s death.

Different rules apply to older works. I explain these in more detail in my books. For our purposes here, we can safely say that U.S. works first published in or before 1926 are now in the public domain, and all pre-1923 sound recordings are now in the public domain.

These rules are subject to exceptions. For example, the U.S. terms of copyright for works made for hire are different from the terms of copyright for other kinds of works.

Derivative works might not be in the public domain

I have seen a lot of articles declaring that when a work enters the public domain, people no longer need to worry about being sued for copyright infringement. Technically speaking, this is true, but it is important to clearly identify the version of the work that is in the public domain.

Suppose Arthur Conan Doyle published a “Sherlock Holmes” mystery prior to 1923. Suppose, further, that he published a sequel to it in 1928. In the sequel, he added certain details that did not appear in the previous version. If you were to try your hand at writing a Holmes mystery now, and you included some of the details that first appeared in the 1928 story, then you may be guilty of copyright infringement.

Similarly, the fact that the original Winnie the Pooh story is now in the public domain does not mean that movies based on the book are, too. A derivative work may still be copyright-protected even after the work on which it is based has entered the public domain.

Here is a small sampling of some of the many works that are in the public domain this year.

The Sun Also Rises

“you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

–Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway as a young man

The Castle

“Illusions are more common than changes in fortune.”

–Franz Kafka

The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent

“It is hard to believe that the declaration of antifascism is nowadays any more a mark of sufficient grace in a writer than a declaration against disease would be in a physician or a declaration against accidents would be in a locomotive engineer. The admirable intention in itself is not enough and criticism begins and does not end when the intention is declared.”

–John Erskine

Main Street

“She did not yet know the immense ability of the world to be casually cruel….”

–Sinclair Lewis

Soldier’s Pay

“The saddest thing about love, Joe, is that not only the love cannot last forever, but even the heartbreak is soon forgotten.”

–William Faulkner

The Waves

“the poem, I think, is only your voice speaking.”

–Virginia Woolf

Notes on Democracy

“Under the pressure of fanaticism, and with the mob complacently applauding the show,democratic law tends more and more to be grounded upon the maxim that every citizen is,by nature, a traitor, a libertine, and a scoundrel.In order to dissuade him from his evil-doing the police power is extended until it surpasses anything ever heard of in the oriental monarchies of antiquity.”

–H.L. Mencken

Weary Blues

I got the weary blues

And I can’t be satisfied.

Got the weary blues

And can’t be satisfied.

I ain’t happy no mo’

And I wish that I had died.

Langston Hughes

Nanook of the North (film)

"Nanook of the North" movie poster

Purple Cow

I never saw a purple cow;

I never hope to see one.

But I can tell you anyhow

I’d rather see than be one!

Gelett Burgess

Pack Up Your Troubles

‘Pack up your troubles in an old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile.”

–George Asaf

Walter Trier’s illustrations for Emil and the Detectives

Minnesota attorney Thomas James using Walter Trier's public domain cover art as an illustration in this article

Winnie the Pooh

“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”

–A.A. Milne

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