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Public Domain

January 1, 2024, is Public Domain Day, the day each year when copyrights expire and new works enter the public domain in the United States. This milestone means these works are now free for all to copy, share, and build upon, offering a treasure trove of cultural and artistic riches. 

The "Progress Clause" of the U.S. Constitution established the legal basis for federal copyright law, and it did so to encourage the progress of our society, incentivizing the creation of new works that would eventually enrich the public ​domain and be accessible to everyone. So, each work entering the public domain exemplifies how that purpose continues to be fulfilled. 

Under the copyright laws in effect at the time, works created in 1928 would have entered the public domain 20 years ago, when the duration of copyright was 75 years. However, Congress revised the Copyright Act to extend the copyright term for 20 years. So now, after 95 years, those works entered the public domain this year, on January 1, 2024. 

The public is free to build upon works in the public domain, including dramatists who wish to adapt them for the stage, without worrying about securing any rights. That said, there are always caveats in terms of what, when, and how works enter the public domain, and work may be in the public domain in the U.S. but still be protected in certain foreign territories. As we celebrate the liberation of these works, it's essential to be mindful of the nuances, including potential copyright restrictions on specific recordings, adaptations, or derivative works. 

Even if a work is protected by copyright, the public still has a right to "fair use" to use copyrighted works under certain circumstances. Given these complexities, it is advisable that you consult with an attorney to help you clarify a work's copyright status and your right to adapt it or incorporate such material into your work.

Below is a sample of the thousands of copyrighted works in 1928 entering the public domain, alongside sound recordings from 1923. 

Literary Treasures: Books and Plays

Among the literary works now in the public domain are D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera in the original German (Die Dreigroschenoper), Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front in the original German (Im Westen nichts Neues), W.E.B. Du Bois's Dark Princess and Claude McKay's Home to Harlem. The list also includes iconic works such as A.A. Milne's House at Pooh Corner with illustrations by E. H. Shepard, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, and Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train. These texts, representing a snapshot of the cultural struggles of the time, cover themes from societal critique to explorations of gender fluidity and sexuality.

Silver Screen Classics: Films

The cinematic landscape gains several classics, including Buster Keaton's The Cameraman, Charlie Chaplin's The Circus, and the silent version of Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie. The films from this transitional period between silent movies and "talkies" showcase comedic giants like Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy.

Harmonious Freedom: Musical Compositions

Musical compositions now free for creative exploration include Cole Porter's Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love), Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's original German lyrics of Mack the Knife from The Threepenny Opera, and Dorothy Fields and James Francis's I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby. These compositions span Broadway, jazz standards, early blues, and pop music, providing a rich palette for artists to draw upon.

Melodic Nostalgia: Sound Recordings from 1923

Sound recordings from 1923, such as "Charleston" by James P. Johnson and "Down Hearted Blues" by Bessie Smith, are now open for legal reuse. The Music Modernization Act facilitated this access, and you can download, remix, or include these century-old recordings in your projects. For more information, visit the Library of Congress National Jukebox.

The Dramatists Guild supports a robust public domain, especially when it is the explicit wish of a writer regarding their own, otherwise copyrighted, work. When The Constitution established copyright law, it did so in order to encourage the progress of our society, to incentivize the creation of new works that would eventually enrich the public domain, and be accessible to everyone.

Please direct any questions to our DG Business Affairs department staff attorneys, who can offer members past articles and seminars on copyright, public domain, and fair use. 

Learn more about what's in the public domain this year.

Search for copyrighted works.

Explore the Library of Congress National Jukebox.

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