Every year on January 1, a new class of creative works enters the public domain in the United States. This year, thousands of works published in 1927* joined others in the public domain to further enrich the treasure trove of material anyone can freely use without the copyright owner’s permission.
The public domain is an important part of the lifecycle of copyright. When a work is subject to copyright protection, its owner has a set of exclusive rights, allowing them to use or give permission for others to use the work in various ways. These include reproducing or distributing the work, creating derivative works, and publicly performing or displaying the work. When the term of copyright protection ends, these now unrestricted works often inspire the creation of new works—such as reproductions, adaptations, and derivatives.
If you’re planning to use a work in the public domain to create a new work, it’s important to recognize which creative elements appear in the public domain work versus any that may have been introduced in derivative works—such as in a sequel to a novel, a movie based on a play, or a new arrangement of a musical composition. Derivative works are separate works, and copyright may still protect any new creative elements included in these later works.
Here, we’re highlighting just a few of the historical and cultural works that entered the public domain in 2023.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Considered by many to be among the best novels of the twentieth century, To the Lighthouse, by English author Virginia Woolf, was published in the United States on May 5, 1927, and registered with the Copyright Office a few days later on May 10. This semiautobiographical work is an example of modernist literature and utilizes the stream-of-consciousness style Woolf had experimented with in earlier works. The three-part novel, which draws on Woolf’s experiences growing up with her family, focuses on how time changes the Ramsey family’s dynamics after a decade of life and loss. Described by Woolf as “easily the best of my books,” To the Lighthouse, defying criticism, went on to outsell Woolf’s previous novels.
A selection of other 1927 novels now in the public domain: The first three books in the Hardy Boys series by pseudonymous author Franklin W. Dixon—The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff, and The Secret of the Old Mill—and the last of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties
For the poetry anthology Caroling Dusk, published on October 28, 1927, award-winning Harlem Renaissance poet, author, and playwright Countee Cullen selected and edited the works of thirty-eight Black poets, many of them young and rising in the literary world, and artist Aaron Douglas provided the book’s decorations. The anthology comprises more than 200 poems along with the biographies of the featured poets, including Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Angelina Weld Grimké, Anne Spencer, Effie Lee Newsome, Jessie Fauset, Georgie Douglas Johnson, and Gwendolyn Bennett, among others. The youngest poet to be featured was nine-year-old Lulu Lowe Weeden. Publisher Harper & Brothers registered the work with the Copyright Office on October 29, 1927.
A selection of other 1927 poetry now in the public domain: Countee Cullen’s poetry collections The Ballad of the Brown Girl and Copper Sun, T. S. Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi,” and James Weldon Johnson’s book of poems God’s Trombones.
One of the first three Academy Award for Best Picture nominees, 7th Heaven is a silent romantic drama based on the successful 1922 Broadway play Seventh Heaven by Austin Strong. Fox Film Corporation registered the work with the Copyright Office on June 18, 1927. Initially premiering in May 1927 as a standard silent film, Fox Film Corporation re-released the film later that year with a Movietone musical score. Set in France during World War I, the film follows the tale of a young couple separated by war. It became one of the most successful silent films, commercially and critically. In total, 7th Heaven was nominated for five awards at the first Academy Awards and tied for the most wins—for director Franz Borzage, screenwriter Benjamin Glazer, and actress Janet Gaynor. The film also marked the first appearance of on-screen romantic duo Gaynor and Charles Farrell, who would go on to star in twelve films together. In 1995, the Library of Congress selected 7th Heaven for preservation in the National Film Registry.
A selection of other 1927 movies now in the public domain: One of Harold Lloyd’s most critically praised films, The Kid Brother; the first feature-length “talkie,” The Jazz Singer; and one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical score, and another of the first Best Picture nominees, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
Considered one of the most influential films ever made, Metropolis is a German science fiction film directed by Fritz Lang. Paramount Famous Lasky Corp. registered the work with the Copyright Office, noting a publication date of August 1927. Considered technologically advanced for its time, the silent film is set in 2027 and uses special effects and stylistic elements to explore the dystopian city that has emerged.
This is actually the second time Metropolis has entered the public domain in the United States. The first time was in 1955, when the film’s copyright owner failed to renew the work’s registration, as was required for copyright protection under the Copyright Act of 1909. When the United States later joined the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in 1989, however, it agreed to grant the same level of copyright protection to works from other Berne countries as it gave to the works of U.S. nationals. Then, in 1994, Congress passed the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), which amended U.S. copyright law and led to the restoration of copyright protection for certain foreign works that were, among other requirements, in the public domain in the United States but still under protection in an eligible source country. As such, in 1996, Metropolis had its copyright protection restored in the United States.
Learn more about copyright restoration under the URAA in Circular 38B.
“Black and Tan Fantasy”
Iconic jazz pianist, composer, and big band leader Duke Ellington and jazz trumpet and cornet player Bubber Miley co-wrote “Black and Tan Fantasy” in 1927, and Gotham Music Service registered the composition with the Copyright Office on July 22, 1927. At the time, Ellington was the bandleader and Miley was a trumpet player for The Washingtonians, who were performing at the Kentucky Club in New York City. The jazz orchestration became one of Ellington’s earliest hits, and he recorded and performed it throughout his career.
A selection of other 1927 musical compositions now in the public domain: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, for their 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat; “Ramona” by Wolfe Gilbert and Mabel Wayne, who is credited as “one of the first women composers to publish a hit song”; and Gershwin Brothers’ standards “S Wonderful,” “Let’s Kiss and Make Up,” and “He Loves and She Loves.”
*Important note: Sound recordings made prior to February 15, 1972, were partially brought into the federal copyright system under the Classics Protection and Access Act, and those published in 1927 are not yet in the public domain.