Cover of the March/April 2022 issue of The Dramatist
TABLE OF CONTENTS
New Works Now In The Public Domain
Public Domain

January 1, 2022, was Public Domain Day, the day each year when copyrights expire and new works enter the public domain. The “Progress Clause” of the U.S. Constitution established the legal basis for federal copyright law, and 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. So, each work entering the public domain is an example of how that purpose continues to be fulfilled. 

Under the copyright laws in effect at the time, works created in 1926 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 an additional 20 years. So now, after 95 years, those works entered the public domain this year, on January 1, 2022. They include such noteworthy texts as Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues, Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, Edna Ferber’s Show Boat, William Faulkner’s first novel Soldiers’ Pay, Dorothy Parker’s poetry collection Enough Rope, and A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s classic Winnie the Pooh, as well as musical compositions by Ira and George Gershwin (“Someone to Watch Over Me”) and Irving Berlin (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”).

The public is now free to build upon these works, including dramatists who wish to adapt them for the stage, without having to worry about securing any rights. That said, there are always caveats in terms of what, when, and how works enter the public domain. For example, the original text of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat is now in the public domain, but subsequent adaptations, including the film and Broadway musical, 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. And a work may be in the public domain in the U.S. but still be protected in certain foreign territories.

Even if a work is still protected by copyright, the public still has a right of “fair use,”  to use copyrighted works under certain circumstances. Given these complexities, then, 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 own work.

Please direct any questions you have to our Business Affairs department. They can also offer members any of the many past articles and seminars on the subjects of copyright, public domain, and fair use.   

RALPH SEVUSH, Esq.
Ralph Sevush, Esq.

is an entertainment attorney. He’s been with the Dramatists Guild of America since 1997, and their Co-Executive Director and general counsel since June 2005. He is the Treasurer for the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund.