Every year on January 1, previously copyrighted works enter the public domain, allowing the public to legally access, adapt, and republish the works.
This year on January 1, 2021, works released in 1925 enter the public domain. This means classics novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, films like The Freshman, and music by Duke Ellington (among many others) entered the public domain and are free for the public to use.
What does it mean to be in the public domain?
The “public domain” means works that are not protected by intellectual property law such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. A public domain work can be used by anyone without obtaining permission or paying a fee.
Why does work enter the public domain?
It is important that works eventually enter the public domain so they can spur new creative works. It also allows works to be published more cheaply and made available for free online. Thus, more people have access to the works.
How does a copyrighted work enter the public domain?
A copyrighted work enters the public domain when the copyright expires.
While the copyright law originally provided for the expiration of copyrights after 75 years, legislation passed in 1998 extended the period by an additional 20 years. Additionally, copyright protection expires at the end of the calendar year of the years the copyright is set to expire.
Thus, as of January 1, 2021, all works published in the United States before January 1, 1926 are in the public domain and free to use in the United States without permission.
A copyrighted work can also enter the public domain if the copyright owner fails to renew the copyright or if the owner puts the work in the public domain before the copyright expires by “dedicating” the work to the public domain.
Copyright laws are important to protect the rights of those who create works including many of the arts that we enjoy. The copyright protections, however, do not last in perpetuity. After 95 years, works not protected by intellectual property law freely enter the public domain.
Hopefully, 2021 is a better year. But with new works entering the public domain next January, we at least have something to look forward to.