January 1st is Public Domain Day, my favorite day of the year. Today marks the end of copyright for books, movies, and music first published in the U.S. in 1927. Now that these works are in the public domain, everyone is free to use, reprint, quote, remix, and adapt them without permission or payment.
For many years, only works published in the U.S. through 1922 were in the public domain because of retroactive copyright extensions like the 1998 Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended copyright terms of works published before 1978 from 75 to 95 years and works created on or after that date to the life of the author plus 70 years. Without that extension, these 1927 works would have entered the public domain twenty years ago, in 2003. It wasn’t until January 1, 2019 that copyright protection finally ended for 1923 works, and every New Year’s Day the public domain gains another year’s worth of treasures.
Some notable 1927 literary works now in the public domain include: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes (containing the last two original Sherlock Holmes stories), Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women, William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, to name just a few.
I highly recommend that you visit the Public Domain Day 2023 website created by Jennifer Jenkins from Duke Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain to read important news and information about copyright and the public domain and to explore some of the 1927 works that you can now use as you like. But as Jenkins notes, the celebration is bittersweet because of what could have been:
“This site celebrates works from 1927 that are in the public domain after a 95-year copyright term. However, under the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1966 would be entering the public domain this year. Under current copyright terms we will have to wait until 2062. In fact, since copyright used to come in renewable terms of 28 years, and 85% of authors did not renew, 85% of the works from 1994 might be entering the public domain! Imagine what the great libraries of the world—or just internet hobbyists—could do: digitizing those holdings, making them available for education and research, for pleasure and for creative reuse.”