F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby, some seminal recordings from early blues pioneer Ma Rainey and a number of classic silent films are just a few of the thousands of works that are entering into the Public Domain today.
Thanks to copyright law, any work that was published in 1925 – be it literature, music or film – will become part of the public domain as their copyright expired aton December 31, 2020 at 11:59 pm.
Some of the films going into the public domain today include such classics as The Big Parade directed by King Vidor, Seven Chances with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd’s iconic The Freshman, Erich Von Stroheim’s romance The Merry Widow, Josef von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters, Buster Keaton’s Go West and Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three with Lon Chaney.
With the birth of talkies just two years away, silent films were obviously at the height of their creativity, something that the above list bears out.
But of course, there are some things one may still need to heed before utilizing a public domain work.
For example, just because a work like Burroughs’s Tarzan, Lord Of The Jungle is in the public domain (as of last January 1), that does not necessarily mean that you can go out and make a new Tarzan film scott free. The folks at Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc still own the trademark on the character of Tarzan itself, and you would still need permission to use that mark. (And the folks at Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc have been rather aggressive about defending that trademark.) But not all works going into the public domain have that trademark loophole limiting their use.
Copyright expiration is an important part of the life cycle of culture. It was intended by the Founding Fathers to move a work from benefiting just its creators and their heirs to benefiting a new generation of artists and academics. There are many forgotten works that online resources like The Guttenberg Project, Google Books or the Internet Archives will be able to make available to everyone free of charge as this new year begins. How will scholars and those who create online use this new material? Who can say, but it should be interesting to find out.