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1928 over an hourglass breaking with musical notes and film
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Lifecycle of Copyright: 1928 Works in the Public Domain

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This blog also includes contributions from Jessica Chinnadurai, attorney-advisor, and Rafael Franco, writer-editor intern in the Copyright Office.

Over the last several years, we have witnessed a new class of creative works entering the public domain in the United States each January 1. This year, a variety of works published in 1928, ranging from motion pictures to music to books, joined others in the public domain. The public domain has important historical and cultural benefits in the lifecycle of copyright.

What is copyright and how is it different from other types of intellectual property?

Copyright is a type of intellectual property (IP) that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. Intellectual property rights protect creations of the mind. This includes copyrightable creative works—but also inventions protected by patents, brands protected by trademarks, and commercially valuable information protected under trade secret law. Unlike some other areas of IP, which require government action to secure protection, copyright protection is automatic—although registration with the Copyright Office confers additional benefits.

Copyright law arises from Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The Copyright Act describes that the exclusive rights of copyright owners include the right to use and give permission for others to use the work in many ways—making copies of and distributing the work, creating derivative works, and publicly performing or displaying the work. As the Constitution provided, Congress may only provide these rights for “limited times.” The first federal copyright law, dating back to 1790, protected registered works for fourteen years with a fourteen-year renewal option. Today, the term of copyright protection lasts for the author’s life plus an additional seventy years.

When copyright protection ends, a work enters the public domain, and the exclusive rights granted by copyright no longer exist. This means the work may be reproduced without permission, may be performed or displayed publicly, and may also be used in the creation of new works, such as adaptations and translations. However, even when copyright protection ends and a work is in the public domain, it is important to note that it may still be subject to other protections.[i]

Below are just a few of the historical and cultural works that entered the public domain in 2024.

Motion Pictures

Steamboat Willie

In what is widely regarded as a landmark work of animation, Steamboat Willie is the first film with sound to feature the characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Walt Disney produced Steamboat Willie strictly with sound at the forefront of his mind, and it resulted in huge success. The film was registered with the Copyright Office in 1928 and later inducted into the National Film Registry in 1998.

Pink catalog card with registration information for the film Steamboat Willie
The card catalog registration application card for Steamboat Willie. To learn more about a registration application card, read our blog post from November 2023.

One element of a motion picture that can be protected by copyright is the animation, which refers to the rapid display of a series of still images to create the illusion of motion. The animation in Steamboat Willie shows early versions of the characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse. This Mickey appears without some of the features audiences know him for today, including his red shorts and white gloves. Copyright never protected the names “Mickey Mouse” or “Minnie Mouse,” nor the general idea for “talking mice” characters. However, copyright protected the particular depictions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse seen in Steamboat Willie—that is, the artistic renditions of the characters in visual form. Upon entering the public domain this year, the entire film—including the animation portraying the characters, soundtrack, and other elements—is no longer protected by copyright. This means, among other things, creators can use the film to create another original work, such as a new film of any genre (action, drama, comedy, animation, etc.), soundtrack, or artwork.

White Shadows in the South Seas

The screenplay for the film White Shadows in the South Seas is based on the novel of the same name by Frederick O’Brien. The film was released in 1928, was directed by W. S. Van Dyke, and stars Mone Blue and Raquel Torres. The plot follows Dr. Matthew Lloyd, who washes ashore on a remote island where the inhabitants have never seen a white person before.

The film won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography by Clyde De Vinna. It features a pre-recorded soundtrack, including synchronized music and sound effects of cries, laughs, whistling, and a single spoken word, “hello,” making it the first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film with sound. The film was registered with the Copyright Office in November 1928. Learn more about copyright in motion pictures in the Office’s resource Copyright Registration for Motion Pictures Including Video Recordings (Circular 45).

Black and white typewriter with ACT I typed on a sheet of paper.
Credit: GAS-photo/Shutterstock

Musical Works

“Thinking Blues”

Bessie Smith was an early twentieth century African American blues singer who experienced the peak of her popularity during the roaring twenties. Smith began her career as a recording artist in 1923 when she signed to Columbia Records, and she went on to record over 150 songs.

Many songs by Ms. Smith entered the public domain this January. Among them is “Thinking Blues,” a direct song where she asks an anonymous love: “Have you got the nerve to say that you don’t want me no more?” She registered the unpublished words and melody of the song on February 21, 1928, a year she experienced much success before the Great Depression of 1929 diminished her popularity. Smith remains a central and influential figure in African American music and history.

Other 1928 songs by Smith now in the public domain include “Boa Constrictor Blues,” “Pick Pocket Blues,” and “Sneakin’ Lizard Blues.”

Sepia toned old-time microphone
Credit: Hayati Kayhan/Shutterstock

Written Works

Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle

Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, the eleventh novel of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series, enters the public domain this January. After many failed business ventures, Burroughs published the first book of the series, Tarzan of the Apes, in 1914. Today, the contents of the series have been translated into over fifty-six languages. The series follows the life of Tarzan, who is shipwrecked and marooned in Africa with his parents during his infancy. When his parents die shortly after their accident, Tarzan later gets taken into the care of apes.

Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle was registered with the Copyright Office on September 17, 1928. It centers on Tarzan’s encounters with European knights and slave traders in the African jungle. The Tarzan series serves as the basis for many derivative works still protected by copyright, including a 1976–1980 animated television series and a 1999 animated film adaptation. Tarzan also serves as the inspiration for the name of Tarzana, a community in Los Angeles County, California, where Burroughs lived and is buried.

Title page and first page of Tarzan Lord of the Jungle. Title page contains an illustration of Tarzan and a lion.
Image provided in collaboration with the Library of Congress Digital Services team. The full digitized book can be found in the Library’s collections.

 

The Mystery of the Blue Train

Agatha Christie, the best-selling author of all time behind only William Shakespeare, published The Mystery of the Blue Train on March 29, 1928. In total, Christie wrote over 200 works, including 66 crime novels, 150 short stories, and over 30 plays, and was published over 2 billion times in over 100 different languages.

The Mystery of the Blue Train follows the mysterious death of an American heiress aboard a train, Le Train Bleu, on the way from England to the French Riviera. The book features the detective work of Hercule Poirot, the central detective of some of Christie’s most successful novels, including The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, and Death on the Nile. In April 1928, Christie registered the book with the Copyright Office.

Telephone and typewriter with a piece of paper in it on a desk with a desk light as the only light in the room.
Credit: Stokkete/Shutterstock

Dark Princess

Activist, sociologist, historian, and author W. E. B. DuBois left a legacy with regards to his fight for African Americans’ rights, including co-founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Among his writings is his second novel, Dark Princess, which he described as a romance with a message. In the novel, racist laws prevent the main character, Matthew Towns, from finishing his studies. He falls in love with Princess Kautilya, and they work to liberate the whites-only world they live in, which interferes with their love and separates them. The book was registered with the Copyright Office in April 1928.

Front cover of the book Dark Princess by W. E. B. DuBois. Cover contains painted image of a woman with dark skin.
Image provided in collaboration with the Library of Congress Digital Services team. The full digitized book can be found in the Library’s collections.

Millions of Cats

The children’s book Millions of Cats, written and illustrated by Wanda Gág, is the oldest picture book still in print in the United States. It won a Newberry Honor Medal in 1929, which is awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished book for children. In the story, a wife sends her husband out for a cat, but each time he finds a cat, he decides to take it home. Gág’s brother hand-lettered the text in the book, which includes catchy refrains that Gág used to tell the story across a double-page spread of black-and-white illustrations. The book was registered with the Copyright Office in September 1928.

Cover of the book Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag. Image on cover is an illustration of a man walking up a hill with cats in front of and behind him.
Image provided in collaboration with the Library of Congress Digital Services team. The full digitized book can be found in the Library’s collections.

[i] For more information about researching the copyright status of any work, access our website. The resources How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work (Circular 22) and How to Obtain Permission (Circular 16A) may be particularly helpful. To learn more about patents, trademarks, and trade secrets, visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website. For legal advice, please contact an attorney.

Comments (3)

  1. Good God! I am now in the public domain! Born Sept. 17, 1927. What to do????

  2. Perhaps the signature of an enlightened society is copyright. Both protection and limitations. Wonderful expressions highlighted here.

  3. Very well written blog. Contained much information I did not know. Thank you for creating and posting this.

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