Public Domain

January 1, 2021 was Public Domain day. On that historic date, many new titles entered the public domain, including works by literary luminaries that had all been copyrighted in 1925; that copyright has now expired.

The works in question include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and Alain Locke's The New Negro, which features essays by Zora Neal Hurston,  W.E.B. du Bois, and Langston Hughes, among others. And literature is not the only medium with notable works that have just joined the public domain. A Buster Keaton silent film, as well as musical compositions by composers Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, W.C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller have also now entered the public domain. 

Many of these works from 1925 were originally supposed to enter the public domain twenty years ago; at that point they had been copyrighted for 75 years. However, at that time, Congress extended the copyright term for an additional 20 years. After 95 years, these works have finally entered into the public domain at the start of 2021. Dramatists and other creatives are now free to build upon these works, to adapt them for the stage, without having to worry about securing licensing rights.

That said, there are always caveats in terms of what enters the public domain and when and how.  The original German version of Franz Kafka's The Trial is now in the public domain, but subsequent English translations are still under copyright. Similarly, certain musical compositions have entered the public domain but many recordings of those compositions, by various recording artists, are still firmly under copyright. 

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 regarding how to adapt or use works that may now be in the public domain to our Business Affairs department. 

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