Starting on Jan. 1, anyone can legally remix George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, screen Buster Keaton’s silent films, or publish their own edition of Agatha Christie’s whodunnit The Man in the Brown Suit.
These classics are among the hundreds of books, films, novels, maps, music, and art created in 1924 that will enter the public domain come 2020. Broadly speaking, copyright protection expires in the US after 95 years. The practice of giving access to previous works is meant to benefit a new generation of authors, scholars, and inventors, who can use the classics as raw material for their own work.
“The goal of copyright is to promote creativity,” writes Jennifer Jenkins, director, of Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain in a blog post. “Copyright law gives authors important rights that encourage creativity and distribution. But it also ensures that those rights last for a limited time, so that when they expire, works can go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build upon their inspirations.”
Other works entering the public domain this year include films such as Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator, Paramount Pictures’ 1924 adaptation of Peter Pan, and Henry Otto’s Dante’s Inferno. Literary classics such as E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Edith Wharton’s Old New York, and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain are also now copyright-free.
Ceding creative control was an issue for the Gershwin estate, explains Jenkins. The composer’s family lobbied to extend their ownership of the popular jazz composition by 20 years. First performed in New York in a 1924 concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” Rhapsody in Blue has since been used in a range of applications such as Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics opening ceremony and even United Airlines pre-flight safety videos.
Apart from receiving millions in royalties, Gershwin’s family noted that they wanted to prevent rappers from sampling his music. “We’ve always licensed [Gershwin’s opera] ‘Porgy and Bess’ for stage performances only with a black cast and chorus. That could be debased. Or someone could turn ‘Porgy and Bess’ into rap music,” explained Gershwin’s nephew to the New York Times.
This is all well and good, says Jenkins. “Perhaps Shakespeare’s heirs would not have approved of [the 1999 romcom]10 Things I Hate About You or Kiss Me Kate or West Side Story or Romeo Must Die, but the ability to freely reimagine Shakespeare’s works has spurred a vast amount of creativity, from the serious to the whimsical, and allowed his legacy to endure,” he writes. Similarly, Gershwin’s career-making composition is “freely available to the next Gershwin, even if he is a rap artist.”
Releasing works in the public domain also helps preservation efforts, Jenkins notes. This is particularly true for silent films. The US Library of Congress estimates that 80% of films created in the 1920s and 90% from the 1910s have already decayed beyond repair. For instance, White Man, a Clark Gable film that would have entered the public domain in 2020, no longer exists.
A full list of public domain works is available here.