The public domain: what’s in it for me?

January 19, 2021

Each year on January 1, a new trove of works enters the public domain — that is, their copyrights expire, which means that digital libraries and collections including HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and Google Books, can freely share these works. It also means that anyone can use, adapt, and expand upon them as they see fit. (Caveat: copyright law is territorial, so what’s free to use in the U.S. may still be subject to copyright restrictions in other countries).

We reached out to the folks in our Copyright Office to tell us more about this year’s Public Domain Day, and about the value of the public domain.

People seem pretty excited about this year’s public domain entrants, especially “The Great Gatsby,” which is often touted as the great American novel.

Yes, it looks like there’s already a number of sequels and adaptations on the way (including a prequel and a graphic version), which demonstrates an important point: while some of the excitement is about these works becoming freely shareable, the real thrill is in how they will feed the creative output of generations to come. 

The classic example is Disney, whose catalog has always relied on the public domain, from “Snow White” to “Frozen” (and which, ironically, has lobbied heavily to prevent its own creation, Mickey Mouse, from entering the public domain, something that is expected to happen in 2024). 

Consider also “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” and the thousands of other works derived from Jane Austen’s novels, which wouldn’t exist without the public domain.

Celebrations of Public Domain Day — which typically happens on January 1 — seem to have picked up in recent years.

Well, 2021 is only the third year of new works entering the public domain in the U.S. since the late 1990s, because the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act effectively froze the public domain here for two decades (in some quarters it was called The Mickey Mouse Protection Act, because without it Mickey Mouse would have joined the public domain in 2004).  

So celebrating Public Domain Day is a way to draw attention to the value of these works, and to encourage people to resist efforts by corporate interests to further degrade the right to partake of them once their creators have enjoyed more than a lifetime of exclusive rights. 

This is one of the founding principles of copyright law, in fact — it was built so that creators would have incentives to make new things, and also to ensure that the public would have enduring and ultimately free access to those creations.

What are some other works that have achieved public domain status this year?

Without picking favorites, there are certainly some other notables this year, including Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” the Buster Keaton Film “Go West,” and music by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey

The Center for the Study of Public Domain at Duke lists more of the highlights, and the University of Pennsylvania offers a comprehensive Catalog of Copyright Entries.

Also, if you’re interested in diving deeper, Cornell has a wonderful resource that breaks down the impact of U.S. copyright law on the public domain, which we consult regularly.

The Copyright Office provides expert guidance about copyright through consultations, workshops, presentations, and practical online resources. Questions? Send email to copyright@umich.edu.

 

From the original cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," 1925, with "Celestial Eyes" painted by Francis Cugat.

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