Would you like to host a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller, The Lodger? Maybe you’re interested in adapting Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey into a musical or a graphic novel, or you’d like to make a new recording of “My Blue Heaven” or “The Best Things in Life are Free.” Perhaps you have ambitions of publishing your own edition of the first Hardy Boys mysteries. In each of these cases, you would probably rather not go through the expense and inconvenience of paying for the rights or requesting permission from the copyright holders. Well, you’re in luck, because all these works are in the public domain as of today!
Public Domain Day
Every year on January 1, another batch of creative works loses their copyright status and enters the public domain, becoming freely available for anyone to copy, publish, adapt, and otherwise use however they wish with no need to ask permission. In addition to works published in 1927, works of many authors who died in 1953 will enter the public domain this year.
Here are just a few of the more prominent works that enter the public domain today:
- The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the final collection of Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (rights to the character of Sherlock Holmes have been in dispute by the Doyle estate)
- Death Comes for the Archbishop, novel by Willa Cather
- Elmer Gantry, novel by Sinclair Lewis
- The first three volumes of the Hardy Boys mystery novels: The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff, and The Secret of the Old Mill (note that all three of these early titles were issued later in extensively revised or completely rewritten versions, which have not entered the public domain)
- Men without Women, short story collection by Ernest Hemingway (includes such classics as “The Killers” and “Hills like White Elephants”)
- Steppenwolf, novel by Hermann Hesse (original German-language edition; the earliest English translation, by Basil Creighton, was not issued until 1929)
- The Bridge of San Luis Rey, novel by Thornton Wilder
- To the Lighthouse, novel by Virginia Woolf
Music and Theatre
- Good News, Broadway musical by Laurence Schwab, B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, featuring the songs “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “The Varsity Drag” (libretto registered under the title Hold ‘Em Helen)
- “(I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for) Ice Cream,” song by Howard Johnson, Billy Moll, and Robert A. King
- “Me and My Shadow,” song by Billy Rose and Dave Dreyer
- “My Blue Heaven,” song by Walter Donaldson and George A. Whiting (featured in Ziegfeld Follies of 1927)
- Show Boat, Broadway musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern (The Edna Ferber novel on which this musical was based entered the public domain last year; any subsequent additions or revisions to the 1927 Broadway musical, including new arrangements, will have their own copyrights and most likely will not be in the public domain yet.)
- “’S Wonderful,” song by George and Ira Gershwin (featured in the Broadway musical Funny Face)
- The Jazz Singer, directed by Alan Crosland and starring Al Jolson
- King of Kings, directed by Cecil B. DeMille (not to be confused with the 1967 version directed by Nicholas Ray)
- The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
- Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang
- Napoleon, directed by Abel Gance
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, directed by F.W. Murnau
- Wings, directed by William A. Wellman
See Duke University’s Center for the Study of Public Domain website for more works entering the public domain and for discussions of various issues related to copyright and the public domain.
Understanding Copyright Law
Copyright law is complex and nuanced. For example:
- Not all works published in the same year enter the public domain at the same time in every country.
- Some works that had lost their copyright status in the United States later had their copyright status restored as a result of the Uruguay Rounds Agreement Act.
- Revised or adapted works will have their own copyright terms different from the original works.
- Sound recordings of a musical work may be copyrighted even if the score is in the public domain.
Here are some online sources that can help you stay safe while navigating the potentially treacherous territory of copyright laws:
Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States
The chart “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States,” first compiled by Peter B. Hirtle in 1999 and now kept up to date on the Cornell University Library’s Copyright Services page, shows when works enter the public domain in the United States. Copyright terms in other countries may differ depending on local laws.
Copyright Law of the United States: Duration of Copyright
Chapter 3: Duration of Copyright, from the U.S. Copyright Office’s publication, Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17), contains the federal statutes that govern duration of copyright in the United States.
Copyright Public Records Portal
Search the Copyright Public Records Portal at the U.S. Copyright Office website to find copyright records held by the U.S. Copyright Office. This website also has educational videos and other materials to help you learn how to search and retrieve copyright records.
Copyright Quick Reference Guide
The UNT Libraries Copyright Quick Reference Guide provides basic information on copyright law to help you make sense of your copyright questions.
Would You Like to Know More?
Contact the Copyright Advisory Services at the UNT Libraries to learn more about public domain status, fair use, and other aspects of copyright law of interest to teaching, research, and scholarship. Services include individual consultations, small-group workshops, and presentations on a variety of subjects.
Visit the Sycamore Library to explore government documents, forms, instructions, and other publications related to copyright.
If you need assistance with finding or using government information, please visit the Service Desk in the Sycamore Library during regular hours, contact us by phone (940) 565-4745), or send a request online to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article by Bobby Griffith.