On January 1, a new raft of creative works of expression entered the public domain in the United States. The term of copyright has ended for works published or registered in 1925, which now join pre-1924 works already in the public domain and available for use by everyone without restrictions.
Expiration of copyright term is a critical phase in the lifecycle of copyright. Under the U.S. Constitution, the purpose of copyright is “to promote the progress of science.” Article I, section 8, clause 8, outlines a two-part structure for Congress to follow when enacting copyright laws so that they will further that goal.
Specifically, Congress may secure to authors “the exclusive right to their respective writings.” Granting exclusive rights to authors acts as an incentive to writers, artists, composers, and others in creative fields and thus increases the universe of human knowledge and culture.
Additionally, the Constitution specifies that the protection shall be “for limited times.” This ensures that those works will become part of the storehouse of human creation and can serve as source material for further creation.
The critical role of the public domain in human culture is easily illustrated by the fact that so many new works are based on public domain works, such as the works of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Bram Stoker, Louisa May Alcott, the Brontë sisters, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It’s why people keep making versions of the Robin Hood and King Arthur stories. And when public domain works spark new and original expression, the author of the new material enjoys copyright protection. But note that the copyright protection only covers the new contributions, not the underlying public domain work.
The year 2021 brings a treasure trove of 1925 works into the public domain. Indeed, the BBC has asked whether 1925 might have been “The Greatest Year for Books Ever?”
Following are some of the highlights from 1925. There are also innumerable other works from 1925 worth discovering—such as Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams.
The year 1925 was also a big year for landmark musical compositions, with entries from composers such as Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, George and Ira Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. We now have a great opportunity to rediscover the cultural milestones of 1925 and look forward to new adaptations.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This year’s public domain headliner, The Great Gatsby, is often mentioned in conversations about the “Great American Novel.” This story about a Jazz Age bootlegger pining for the love of his life has for decades been a must-read in American high schools.
In the novel, narrator Nick Carraway recounts his relationship with Jay Gatsby, a Long Island socialite who has never been able to get over Daisy Buchanan, who rejected him long ago for being poor. It is seen as a snapshot of the high society of the pre-Depression Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties as well as a sharp critique of the American Dream, touching on class consciousness, gender relations, race, and the importance of financial success in society.
The book was Fitzgerald’s third novel, and it sold poorly during his lifetime. However, around the Second World War, interest in the story began to soar, and it became part of the curricula of many American public schools.
The story has been adapted for stage, film, and television many times, including a 1974 version with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston and a 2013 version directed by Baz Luhrmann with Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire. With the book now in the public domain, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more adaptations in the near future.
The Freshman (motion picture starring Harold Lloyd)
Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are remembered today by many as the top film comedians of the silent era. Actor Harold Lloyd, while not as well known as the other two, is considered by many to be just as influential as an early pioneer of film comedy and physical stunts.
Lloyd appeared in almost 200 movies, recognizable in his round spectacles, and, like Jay Gatsby, pursuing the American Dream of the 1920s. The Freshman was Lloyd’s eighth feature-length film. In it, Lloyd played the ambitious Harold Lamb. It was the most successful of Lloyd’s silent features. In 1990, the Library of Congress added the film to the National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
In the film, Lloyd’s character Harold Lamb is a college freshman who decides that he will win popularity by becoming a football star, like his own movie idol. The movie set off a trend of college-based movie plots.
The movie was also the subject of some notable copyright infringement claims. In 1929, author H.C. Witwer alleged that the movie infringed the 1915 short story “The Emancipation of Rodney.” Witwer’s widow eventually won a judgment in 1930, but a federal appeals court reversed the award.
In 2000, Lloyd’s granddaughter brought an unsuccessful claim against the Walt Disney Co., alleging that the 1998 Adam Sandler film The Waterboy had copied portions of The Freshman.
“Sweet Georgia Brown” by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard, and Kenneth Casey
The story goes that bandleader Ben Bernie met Georgia politician George Thaddeus Brown, who had a daughter named Georgia. Bernie, Maceo Pinkard, and Kenneth Casey were inspired to write a musical composition about a woman with irresistible charisma. Bernie and his Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra recorded the song and hit the top of the charts for five weeks in 1925.
The song has been recorded many times since, including a whistled version in 1949 by Brother Bones and His Shadows. This version is widely known as the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters barnstorming basketball team.
The song has also been recorded by Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Nancy Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carol Burnett. In the 1983 comedy To Be or Not to Be, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft performed a Polish-language version.
While the song “Sweet Georgia Brown” is in the public domain, it’s important to note that sound recordings and musical compositions are subject to separate terms and standards of protection. The sound recordings of “Sweet Georgia Brown” made prior to February 15, 1972, have their own separate type of statutory protection and are not in the public domain. For more information, see the Classics Protection and Access Act.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady by Anita Loos
In 1912, Anita Loos became the first woman to get hired on staff by a Hollywood studio as a scriptwriter. After submitting many scripts that went unproduced, she got her first screen credit for a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Loos continued her career in screenwriting, while also contributing to magazines, penning a string of hits for Douglas Fairbanks.
A series of satirical sketches about a flapper called Lorelei Lee made a bundle for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, and Loos worked the short stories into a book, which became a best seller in 1925.
The book is presented in the form of Lorelei’s error-riddled diary. She travels the world, staying at the Ritz in every major city she visits, funded by the men eager for her company. Many of the themes of the story are similar to those found in The Great Gatsby, with Lorelei pursuing hedonistic pleasures and material comfort.
The book was adapted several times, including in a 1953 version starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe.
The Lost King of Oz by Ruth Plumly Thompson
The use of preexisting works to generate sequels isn’t a recent phenomenon. Shakespeare wrote sequels to his plays and reused a popular fictional character, Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff even headlines a play after being declared dead in a previous one, a phenomenon perhaps familiar to superhero fans. Miguel de Cervantes wrote a sequel to Don Quixote after another writer published an “unauthorized” Don Quixote story.
By the time L. Frank Baum scored a success with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, as you can see, the sequel was not a new idea. But Baum might have kicked off the modern era of sequels by writing thirteen more Oz books, as well as several Oz plays. After his death, his estate authorized even more sequels by other writers.
One of those writers was Ruth Plumly Thompson, who from 1921 to 1939 added nineteen books to the series, including The Lost King of Oz in 1925. As a focus for the novel, Thompson seized on the mention of a former ruler of Oz in Baum’s second Oz book. The book follows the exile of the character, Pastoria, and his return.
I can’t seem to find a link to or a list of those works that have now entered the public domain. Is there one?
From the FAQs on Copyright.gov —
Do you have a list of songs or movies in the public domain?
No, we neither compile nor maintain such a list. A search of our records, however, may reveal whether a particular work is no longer under copyright protection. We will conduct a search of our records by the title of a work, an author’s name, or a claimant’s name. Upon request, our staff will search our records see Circular 4 Copyright Office Fees, for this and other records and services. You may also search the records in person without paying a fee.
Respectfully, Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 8 states “Science and useful arts…” works of authorship like those mentioned in your article are “useful arts,” not science. It is an important distinction that includes a lot of protectable works.
The association of “science” and “copyright” is an interesting topic. For more information, we suggest starting here: https://www.copyright.gov/about/registers/dewolf/act_dewolf.html
So if I wanted to transcribe a work of Classic literature like ‘The Great Gatsby’ into Gregg Shorthand it would be all right to do.
After I was done ‘re-writing’ it could I send the shorthand manuscript to you somehow. Thank you.