Last year, for the first time in twenty years, published creative works entered into the public domain in the United States. Works from 1923 saw their copyright terms end, meaning they were no longer subject to copyright protection. With the new year, works published in 1924 joined them.
The public domain is an important part of the lifecycle of copyright. The U.S. Constitution set the stage for Congress to pass copyright law protection for creative works, granting creators exclusive rights, subject to certain exceptions and limitations, for the use of their works. But, that control is not infinite. Just as significant is the Constitution’s assertion that those exclusive rights should only exist for “limited times.”
Once in the public domain, anyone can use a work without permission from the author. This often means that works in the public domain inspire the creation of new works, adaptations, derivatives, and more—which further enriches the cultural landscape of the country.
On January 1, 2020, thousands of historical and cultural works from 1924 entered the public domain in the United States. These are just a few of the notable highlights.
The Boxcar Children
Gertrude Chandler Warner was a children’s book author and elementary school teacher who always dreamed of being a writer. In 1924, she wrote the original version of her first novel, The Box-Car Children, published by Rand McNally and Company. Though popular among children, it wasn’t until 1942 that Warner would return to the novel. Revising the original to simplify its vocabulary and content, Warner ensured that it was accessible and engaging for young readers. It would be the start of the beloved series, The Boxcar Children Mysteries, for which Warner would write the next eighteen novels until her death in 1979. Twelve years later, publisher Albert Whitman & Company revived Warner’s legacy and has since released more than 150 novels and 2 animated films.
“Fascinating Rhythm” and “Oh, Lady Be Good!”
The first Broadway collaboration for brothers George and Ira Gershwin was in 1924 when they wrote the music and lyrics, respectively, for the hit musical comedy Lady, Be Good. The original Broadway production opened at the Liberty Theater in New York City on December 1, 1924, and was also noteworthy because it starred the Astaire siblings, Fred and Adele. Many of the Gershwins’ compositions for the musical are now in the public domain, including its best-known songs, “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “Fascinating Rhythm,” which were later featured in the 1941 film adaptation. The numbers have inspired some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century to record their own versions, including Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Count Basie.
The Gift of Black Folk
Scholar and civil rights activist William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois worked his whole life to fight racism and discrimination as a writer, editor, and founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Throughout his life, he wrote seventeen books, authored countless articles and editorials, and was the founder and editor for several magazines and journals. In 1924, the Knights of Columbus commissioned Du Bois to write The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America. The book was significant to the conversation on reshaping race relations and underscored the importance of African Americans to the history and culture of the United States, documenting many of their crucial, yet unrecognized, contributions. The Gift of Black Folk is an enduring work that continues to be studied and celebrated today.
“Jealous Hearted Blues”
Cora “Lovie” Austin was a pioneering Chicago bandleader, jazz pianist, and singer. She was also a prominent composer and arranger who worked with some of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s, including Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Alberta Hunter. In 1924, the influential musician wrote “Jealous Hearted Blues,” which was then recorded by her idol, the “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Jazz Band. The song was a popular number, later adapted by The Carter Family and performed by many since.
It’s important to note that while the 1924 musical composition for “Jealous Hearted Blues” is in the public domain, the sound recording is not. The Music Modernization Act brought sound recordings fixed before February 15, 1972, partially into the federal copyright system and, among other things, extended remedies for copyright infringement. As such, the original sound recording featuring Rainey will not enter the public domain until 100 years after its first publication.
In 1924, the iconic filmmaker and actor Buster Keaton directed and starred in two acclaimed silent films, The Navigator and Sherlock Jr. The latter is considered one of his masterpieces. Film historians and critics celebrate the surrealistic film for Keaton’s trademark physical comedy and dry humor as well as for its editing and special effects. In 1991, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Additionally, the American Film Institute ranked Sherlock Jr. as one of the 100 funniest films, and the Motion Picture Editors Guild named it one of the 75 best-edited films of all time.
American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Edna Ferber didn’t think her 1924 novel So Big would be successful. In fact, she apologized to her publisher, Doubleday, when she sent the manuscript, writing, “I think its publication as a book would hurt you, as publishers, and me as an author.” Ferber found inspiration for the story—which follows the life of a young widow raising her son while working on a vegetable farm—in Antje Paarlberg, a Dutch immigrant who settled in the Chicago area in the 1800s. Despite her concerns, Doubleday loved the manuscript. So Big went on to become the best-selling fiction novel of the year and won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1925.
To learn more about the public domain and how works become part of it, check out our Learning Engine video, “What is Public Domain?”