The particularities of copyright law may not seem like the most fascinating of subjects, but if you like good movies, literature, art and poetry — especially it when they’re easy to find and possibly even free — then you’ll want to hear this.
As of January 1, tens of thousands of works from 1923 have been released into the public domain from creators like Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Louis Armstrong, Bela Bartok, Agatha Christie and e.e. cummings.
What does it mean to be in the public domain? In short, it means no one holds the copyright to the work, so it can be broadcasted, consumed, remixed or re-imagined without having to pay royalties to a copyright holder.
This opens the door for all kinds of nifty things:
- Public domain books, for instance, are often offered for free on e-readers (here’s a good list of some new public domain freebies).
- Movies in the public domain can be more easily broadcast on television and distributed more widely.
- Public domain music can be used for background tracks on your YouTube vlogs.
- Books, poems and works of art can be used for educational purposes, and poems can be, say, set to music.
This newly accessible gold mine of creative works is relatively rare. Thanks to changing laws and thorny international copyright systems, such a release hasn’t happened in two decades.
These works from 1923 were due to be released in 1999 before Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended copyright terms another 20 years.
So just what’s in this treasure chest of public domain goodies from 95 years ago? Let’s start with some of the biggest ones, researched and confirmed by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University.
Mind you, this is 1923 we’re talking about. So most of the more well-known stuff is going to be the books, music and art. And if you are partial to classical music or the blues, hold on to your hat.
“The Ten Commandments,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille
“The Pilgrim,” directed by Charlie Chaplin
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” directed by Wallace Worsley
“Don Quixote,” Miguel Cervantes
“Tulips and Chimneys,” e.e. cummings
“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Charles L. Dodgson (who you’ll know by his pen name, Lewis Carroll)
“Men Like Gods,” H.G. Wells
“The Prophet,” Kahlil Gibran
“Towards a New Architecture,” Le Corbusier
“Antic Hay,” Aldous Huxley
“The Murder on the Links,” Agatha Christie
“The World Crisis,” Winston Churchill
“The Three Musketeers,” Alexandre Dumas
“Tarzan and the Golden Lion,” Edgar Rice Burroughs
Plus many, many more works by the likes of Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Frost and J.D. Rockefeller, Jr.
“Weather Bird Rag” by Louis Armstrong (and many more works by him)
Two violin sonatas by Bela Bartok (and many more)
Loads of Irving Berlin
Loads of George Gershwin, including “Let’s be Lonesome Together” and “And Half Past Seven”
Loads of Oscar Hammerstein
“The Perfect Fool” by Gustav Holst (and many more)
Loads of Al Jolson, including “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” and “Stella”
“Rapsodie Espagnole” by Maurice Ravel (and many more)
“The Dauntless Battalion” by John Philip Sousa
This is a wildly abridged list and there are literally thousands of other works to explore in these categories. There are also dramatic works, works of art, and even works of choreography that are now public domain.
However, sadly, just because works from 1923 CAN come into the public domain doesn’t mean they are able. Some of these works may not be published or accessible, or may even — in rare instances — be swallowed back into a copyright at a later date.