What’s entering the Public Domain in 2020?

Rhapsody in Blue record image from the Library of Congress

Happy New Year, Cat Flaggers, and Happy Public Domain Day! That’s right, January 1, 2020 isn’t just the start of the new decade. (Yes, I know about the technicality that there was no year zero and the decade should therefore start in 2021, but I’m talking about everyday usage here.) It’s also the day that the copyrights for most things published in 1924 expire in the United States, opening them up for anyone to use freely.

I’ve talked about the public domain several times on this blog before. Just in case you need a refresher, though, when someone makes a creative expression such as a piece of artwork, a book, a song, a film, a video game, etc., he or she gets to own the copyrights to that work for a fixed period of time set by law in order to have control over the work and receive financial compensation for its publication and sale. The goal is to encourage creativity, and to that end, once the copyrights expire the works enter the public domain and anyone can freely use them for whatever purpose they wish. Sure, you can just republish the public domain work yourself as-is, but ideally, you can use it to enhance your own creativity by drawing on these public domain works for inspiration or incorporating elements of them into your own creative ideas.

In the United States, copyright law has been changed and updated multiple times, including in 1998, when the Copyright Term Extension Act added an additional 20 years to all copyrights. This led to a 20-year period where nothing new entered the public domain, a period that ended on January 1 of last year. Now, once again, new works can enter the public domain every New Year’s Day.

So, what’s entering the public domain this year?

Let’s start with the big one: the George Gershwin classic, Rhapsody in Blue. The famed composer’s most iconic work was first published and performed in 1924, meaning its composition and melody can now legally be performed by anyone for free. Mind you, thanks to the Music Modernization Act of 2018, any actual recordings of the song are still under copyright. Still, there is now nothing to stop any musician who wants to cover the song or to incorporate pieces of the song into their own music from doing so.

Apparently, Gershwin’s family are quite unhappy about this; they don’t like the idea of some hip-hop artist rapping over Rhapsody in Blue. However, as I just pointed out, other artists being free to take creative liberties with public domain works is literally the entire point.

Of course, there were plenty of other songs that were published in 1924 that now have sheet music in the public domain. These include Irving Berlin’s Lazy, Ma Rainey’s Jealous Hearted Blues, and Louis Armstrong’s Santa Claus Blues.

Joining these is the very first film adaptation of Peter Pan:

As well as the Buster Keaton classic Sherlock Jr:

The Eugene O’Neill play Desire Under the Elms is also entering the public domain this year, for those who have an interest in theater.

Here’s just a sampling of the books whose copyrights have expired:

  • We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, one of the forerunners of the dystopian fiction genre.
  • Doctor Dolittle’s Circus by Hugh Lofting, one of the famous book series about the man who could talk to animals.
  • Tarzan and the Ant-Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first published as a magazine serial early in 1924 and collected as a novel later that year.
  • E.M. Forster’s classic novel A Passage to India

Maybe you can find something among these classic works to get your creative juices flowing. Or, perhaps, you just want to sit back and enjoy some classics from the Roaring Twenties for free now that we are in the 20’s again. Either way, I think it’s always worth celebrating when the public domain expands. I’ll probably do this again next year, when the copyrights on works from 1925 expire. In the meantime, I hope you all have a wonderful 2020!

2 Responses to What’s entering the Public Domain in 2020?

  1. Pingback: What’s entering the public domain in 2021? | Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: What’s entering the public domain in 2022? | Cat Flag

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