These Incredible Works of Literature, Film, and Music Entered the Public Domain in 2021

Public Domain Works Copyright 2021

1925 first edition copy of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, cover illustration by Francis Cugat. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])

In intellectual property law, public domain is a term used to denote a work free from copyright or whose copyright has expired. There are many ways a work of art, literature, or film may enter the public domain. Each year, many classic works become public simply due to the passing of time. Works published between 1923 and 1977 pass into the public domain on January 1, 95 years after their respective year of publication. This year, a batch of celebrated works from 1925 are now open to free public use, distribution, and adaptation. These works include F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and works by musicians such as Duke Ellington and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey.

These works join other recent copyright expirations which have delighted historians and artists alike. In 2019, The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud and On White II by artist Wassily Kandinsky became open for public use without fees. In 2020, works such as New York Pavements by painter Edward Hopper and Rhapsody in Blue by composer George Gershwin also became public domain designated. Now with the 2021 release of works by Fitzgerald, Woolf, Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, and Franz Kafka, students and scholars will be able to freely study these touchstones of popular culture. According to the Center for the Study of Public Domain at Duke University, the addition of works to the public domain is both a boon to creativity and a necessary intervention to preserve works of culture which may be disintegrating in archives due to lack if interest.

Not all works of art and literature pass immediately into the public domain after 95 years. Artist's estates and their descendants may hold claim to use and profits for longer periods of time. Additionally, intellectual property laws vary by country. Some works entering the public domain in the United States may still be considered under copyright in other countries—and vice versa. Before using an old work of art, make sure you do a little research to confirm its copyright status. Scroll down for some of the most exciting 2021 public domain designations (in the U.S.)—for more titles, see this list compiled by Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke's Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

Lots of legendary works of music, literature, and film entered the public domain on January 1, 2021 as their copyrights expired.

Lovers in Quarantine Public Domain

“Lovers in Quarantine” a silent comedy film from 1925 starring Harrison Ford and Bebe Daniels. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])

Books

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  • Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time
  • Franz Kafka, The Trial (in German)
  • Alain Locke, The New Negro (includes works from writers such as W.E.B. du Bois,
  • Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston)
  • Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys
  • Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction
  • Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, A Daughter of the Samurai
Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf, photographed in 1902 by
George Charles Beresford. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])

Films

  • Lovers in Quarantine, directed by Frank Tuttle
  • Go West, directed by Buster Keaton
  • The Merry Widow, directed by Erich von Stroheim (available to watch in full on YouTube)

Music

  • “Always,” by Irving Berlin
  • “Army Camp Harmony Blues,” by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (with Hooks Tilford)
  • “Jig Walk” and “With You,” by Duke Ellington (both with Joseph “Jo” Trent)
  • “Manhattan,” by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers

Can we expect some Great Gatsby remixes and new blues renditions of old tunes? Public domain works inspire modern creativity.

Duke Ellington Jazz Songwriter Performer

Duke Ellington photographed in the 1940s. Some of Ellington's earliest works have just entered the public domain. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public domain])

h/t: [NPR]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and reading while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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