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The Lifecycle of Copyright: 1926 Works Enter the Public Domain

On January 1, 2022, a new class of creative works entered the public domain in the United States. From a certain honey-loving bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood to a classic Gershwin ballad, works published or registered in 1926 now join pre-1925 works already in the public domain.

The public domain is an important part of the lifecycle of copyright. Article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Rights to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” While copyright remains an important tool to promote creative expression, copyright protection does not last forever, and when a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain. Works in the public domain are available for use by everyone without restrictions.

This year, thousands of historical and cultural works from 1926 entered the public domain in the United States. These are just a few exciting highlights:

First edition cover of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, illustrations by E. H. Shepard; top right corner Pooh bear hangs from a balloon with bees around him; bottom left corner, Christopher Robin and the rabbits pull Pooh out of a holeWinnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne

One of the most iconic English-language children’s books of the twentieth century, Winnie-the-Pooh, was published in the United States in 1926. It was written by English author A. A. Milne and illustrated by English illustrator E. H. Shepard. The characters of Winnie-the-Pooh and his animal friends were inspired by a teddy bear and other stuffed animals given to Milne’s young son, Christopher Robin Milne. The character of Pooh first appeared in a 1924 collection of children’s poetry called When We Were Very Young and in a 1925 story called “The Wrong Sort of Bees” before Milne published Winnie-the-Pooh.

First edition cover of My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather; yellow background; title and author in blue-green color; title and author in rectangular box within much larger diamond shape, which features intricate design of garlands within itMy Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

The 1926 novel, My Mortal Enemy, by American author Willa Cather examines the life and marriage of a complicated protagonist, Myra Henshawe. Cather’s eighth novel, My Mortal Enemy, is known for its spare and dramatic prose and seeks to challenge our preconceptions about domestic happiness. The novel was first published in the March 1926 issue of McCall’s magazine and, later that same year, was published by Alfred A. Knopf as a first edition.

Other authors in this year’s class of public domain works include William Faulkner, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, Dorothy L. Sayers, and H.G. Wells.

The Weary Blues by Langston HughesFirst edition cover of The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes; Orange background with dark silhouette of a Black man sitting at a piano; there is a lamp above the piano casting a burst of yellow light

James Mercer Langston Hughes, also known as Langston Hughes, was an American writer and poet and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, at twenty-four years old, he published his first collection of poetry titled The Weary Blues, which contains some of his best-known poems to this day. The book won several awards, allowing him to finish paying for his education, and quickly cemented Hughes as a critical voice of and for Black Americans in the United States. The title poem, “The Weary Blues,” is a lyrical and evocative masterpiece that places the reader directly inside the Harlem club on Lenox Avenue Hughes writes about.

He did a lazy sway….
He did a lazy sway….
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!

The poems in The Weary Blues include “I, Too,” “Dream Variations,” “Mother to Son,” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

Bright red background; big Oh, Kay! in white bubble letters; a few scattered flowers in white and black outline; Text (from top to bottom): SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME; Alex A. Aarons and Vinton Freedley present The New Musical Comedy Oh, Kay!, music by George Gershwin, Book by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Dances and Ensembles by Sammy Lee, Play directed by John Harwood, Harms New York“Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin

The classic song “Someone to Watch Over Me” was composed in 1926 by George Gershwin with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. The brothers, who were born in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1890s, are considered to be among the greatest songwriting teams in history. George Gershwin was a composer, pianist, and conductor, and Ira Gershwin was a song lyricist. The brothers wrote together until George Gershwin’s early death in 1937.

“Someone to Watch Over Me” was written for the Broadway musical Oh, Kay! and for the show’s star, English actress, singer, and dancer Gertrude Lawrence. In the second act of Oh, Kay!, Lawrence sings “Someone to Watch Over Me” to a rag doll, a prop decision made by George Gershwin himself. The song was initially written and performed as a jazzy, ragtime-y tune, and in fact, the directions on the sheet music indicate it should be played “scherzando,” meaning playfully, sportively. However, separately from the musical, the Gershwin brothers, and subsequent performers, quickly began interpreting the song as a slower ballad, which is how it is best known today.

Beige, rectangular catalog card with small hole punched in bottom center of card; Text: WODEHOUSE, PELHAM GRENVILLE. Oh Kay; musical composition in two acts by P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. Book and lyrics. C 1Dec26, D77888. R121703, 2Dec53, P.G. Wodehouse (A)Oh, Kay! Book by P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton

The book for the musical that gave us “Someone to Watch Over Me,” Oh, Kay!, was written by P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. Oh, Kay! was registered with the Copyright Office in 1926, and the musical opened at the Imperial Theatre in New York City on November 8, 1926, to positive reviews. This Jazz Age musical comedy follows Prohibition-era bootleggers, including a woman named Kay, who find themselves in a variety of comedic misunderstandings and a love triangle, as they try to hide their stash of alcohol in a supposedly uninhabited summer home.

The role of Kay was written for Gertrude Lawrence, her first role in a book musical in the United States, and she reprised the role in a London production of Oh, Kay! the season after it debuted on Broadway.

The musical Oh, Kay! also offers a reminder that copyright does not protect a title. In 1926, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, and Howard Dietz registered a song titled “Oh, Kay!” (also from the musical), which incidentally joins the public domain this year as well.

Additional Sources
https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Weary-Blues
https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/langston-hughes-peoples-poet
https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/
The Great American Songbook: Part 2
The 100 Most Important People in Musical Theatre by Andy Propst
Historical Dictionary of the Broadway Musical by William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird

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