Public Domain in 2020

According to the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, works published between 1923 and 1977 were given an extension to their copyright from 75 years to 95 years. Works published after 1978 are under copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years.

This means that works published in 1924 are now in the public domain. They can be reproduced, revised, performed, etc., without having to pay any royalties to the estate. Every year for the next 50+ years, there will a new batch of properties that will become public domain on January 1.

This year’s group includes some well-known works, including:

Books

  • Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit
  • Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
  • E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
  • A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Ant Men
  • Eugene O’Neill, Desire Under the Elms
  • Edith Wharton, Old New York (four novellas)
  • Hugh Lofting, Doctor Dolittle’s Circus
  • W. E. B. Du Bois, The Gift of Black Folk

Music

  • Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin
  • Fascinating Rhythm and Oh, Lady Be Good, music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin
  • Lazy, Irving Berlin
  • Santa Claus Blues, Charley Straight and Gus Kahn (recorded by Louis Armstrong)

George Gershwin once described his inspiration for Rhapsody in Blue: “It was on a train … that I suddenly heard – and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody in Blue, from beginning to end. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”

So, if you want to set Tarzan and the Ant Men to the music of Rhapsody in Blue, you can now do so without fear of violating any copyright law. Whether your rendition would be worthy of anyone’s time is another question entirely.

Next year, in January 2021, a few significant books will shift to public domain:

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  • P. G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves
  • G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
  • T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men (the poem)
  • Willa Cather, The Professor’s House
  • Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (hard to believe it was published that long ago)
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  • Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys
  • Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
  • Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time (short stories)
  • Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith
  • W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
  • Ruth Plumly Thompson, The Lost King of Oz (19th in the Oz series and fifth written by her)
  • A. A. Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh story The Wrong Sort of Bees,” published in the London Evening News

 

28 Responses to Public Domain in 2020

  1. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson January 13, 2020 at 4:53 am #

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. Avatar
    Terry Whalin January 13, 2020 at 5:30 am #

    Steve,

    Interesting article about public domain. I’m not familiar with the all these titles but they seem like most are fiction (novels). Through the years I’ve read that one of the greatest sources of public domain material is the U.S. government –which produce nonfiction books–which can be repackaged and sold because they are in the public domain. I’ve not tried it but heard of others taking this action.

    Terry
    Get a FREE copy of the 11th Publishing Myth

  3. Avatar
    Nancy MacDonald January 13, 2020 at 5:44 am #

    Extremely helpful…and excellently explained!

  4. Avatar
    Shulamit January 13, 2020 at 6:39 am #

    Recently someone asked me for permission to translate a story by my great-grandmother, originally published in the 1950’s. I do not own my great-grandmother’s rights in any direct way, but it seems nobody does.

    In this case, I told them to go ahead, but clarified that I did not know who had the real right to give permission. Still, getting something of hers translated without having to pay for it seemed good for my family.

    A friend of mine got upset with me, suggesting I should not have given my permission so freely. No one was going to pay for the use–if I had said no, they would have just chosen a different author.

    How do the descendants of an author determine who actually owns the rights to their work, when the author themselves did not take that into any legal account (as far as I, or any of my relatives knows)?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 13, 2020 at 10:32 am #

      Shulamit,
      I don’t know the specifics so will only speak in generalities.

      Normally a person’s property (physical and intellectual property) passes to whomever receives them via the estate.

      In your great-grandmother’s situation those rights would have passed to the family…most likely.
      But in the 50s the copyright law was different. Back then a book was under copyright for 27 years and had to be renewed in the 27th year. It may be unlikely that the copyright was renewed in the 70s. But then whether or not it was covered by the revised copyright law in 1978 is another question.

      Someone does own the rights. Great-Grandmother’s estate passed to someone. And may have then passed to someone else. But if no one knows or claims it, then it can get messy if it were suddenly worth a million dollars because Spielberg decided to make a movie about it.

      Depending on when she passed away, you could use modern copyright law which is life-of-author plus 70 years…then it passes into public domain. For example, if she passed away in 1960, it would become public domain in 2030.

      Unlikely that any of this would be an issue for your situation.

      But you do raise an excellent question that all authors should consider. PLAN for your intellectual property in your estate planning! I feel a blog post coming….

      Steve

      • Avatar
        Shulamit January 13, 2020 at 4:36 pm #

        Thank you, Steve!

        In my great-grandmother’s case, she died only a few years after publishing, and I’m pretty sure no one renewed her copyright. Her stories are interesting, but very dated, and the only people interested in them are family and historians.

        If it is in public domain, doesn’t that specifically mean that no one owns the rights? If someone dies without renewing, and no heir renews something published in the 1950’s, doesn’t that mean it goes into public domain and thus is no longer owned by anyone at all?

        Apologies, my father was an attorney, and I can’t help myself from digging into the legal stuff. I hope when you write a blog post on planning for intellectual property in estate planning, you might include something about how intellectual property can become unowned.

  5. Avatar
    Lynn Thomas January 13, 2020 at 7:16 am #

    Love it! this is a keeper!

  6. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 13, 2020 at 7:54 am #

    Be watchful of the words you birth,
    and cautious in their lending
    for they are Heaven’s troth
    to you, not yours for the spending.
    What God has placed upon the heart
    is for you to use with care
    and He trusts you’ll play your part
    and carve them into stone, not air.
    They’re given as soul’s birthright,
    not to be passed away on whim
    for you’re the foil that shines the light
    that leads the unsaved world to Him.
    No, it is not “all ’bout you”,
    but He needs that you keep it true.

  7. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson January 13, 2020 at 8:19 am #

    The Winnie-the-Pooh franchise generates more money for Disney than any of their other franchises. Or, at least, it did.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 13, 2020 at 10:22 am #

      Brennan,
      That is true. But note that the book that came into the public domain this year is not a Winnie-the-Pooh book. “When We Were Young” is a book of poetry for children. It is often included in sets with Milne’s other three Pooh books.

      Note also that the text of the books may eventually make their way into the public domain (those written by A.A. Milne), the iconic image created by Disney will not. Disney will control that image for a long time.

      • Avatar
        Brennan S. McPherson January 13, 2020 at 12:51 pm #

        Right. I know there are differences between the visual representations and the words of the original book. Just like a sound recording and its composition are different intellectual properties. My comment about “at least it did” was aimed at the fact that I don’t know whether it’s still generating more revenue in the current calendar year than any other franchise that they control. Like the Star Wars franchise. Sorry for my lack of specificity!

  8. Avatar
    Debby Kratovil January 13, 2020 at 8:28 am #

    For years I’ve paid attention to copyright in my genre (crafts industry/patterns). And even when I use public domain patterns for inspiration, I like to attribute the author (long dead but still influencing the world). What’s funny to me is when someone says they just invented a pattern and they own all rights and I can point to the same thing having been done 100 years ago! Nothing new under the sun, right? Since we’re made in the image of God, all creativity (words, designs, art) just show His touch. As an author of thousands of quilt patterns (you can do a lot in 27 years!), I have had my copyright violated many times. Literally post pictures from magazines and books where my work appeared and then try to sell it! (I do troll Etsy and eBay for these every so often – just type in my name and – BOOM! It’s me, but it’s not me!) It’s when this occurs in another country (ie, Russia, China) there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. It’s nice to have a publisher “duke it out” for you and they’ve done it for me on more than one occasion. (That’s why authors only make 10% of wholesale most of the time – it’s that overhead that eats up the sales.) But when it’s my own self published patterns, the best I can do is send a “cease and desist” letter from a lawyer friend. Most of the time it scares the you-know-what out of the violator. Sorry this is so long! I got carried away with an important topic to me.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 13, 2020 at 10:20 am #

      Debby, Thanks for the great reminder that copyright isn’t just for books. It extends to all intellectual property. That is one reason to be very careful in reposting photos found on the internet. Just because they are on the web doesn’t mean they are “free.”

  9. Avatar
    Karen Ingle January 13, 2020 at 9:14 am #

    Interesting. There are some Agatha Christie books I’ve wanted to see turned into plays/screenplays. Maybe as they become public domain I can make that happen myself! Hmmm…

  10. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka January 13, 2020 at 9:20 am #

    I know little about public domain. Reading the titles of music and books that are now public domain fascinated me.

    As one who doesn’t know much, does this mean that, if I quoted a couple lines of a song or a quote from one of these books I wouldn’t get in trouble? 🙂

    • Avatar
      Shulamit January 13, 2020 at 9:41 am #

      Jeanne, it means you could publish an entire book if it is in the public domain and not get in trouble. For example, if you wanted to produce a gift version of “The Great Gastsby” that looked really nice, you could legally do that without getting permission from anyone.

      • Avatar
        Steve Laube January 13, 2020 at 10:18 am #

        The Great Gatsby is not in public domain until 2021.

        • Avatar
          Shulamit January 13, 2020 at 4:16 pm #

          Ack. My bad. I zipped back up the page and grabbed the first one I liked. My bad. Conceptually, it still stands: if it IS in the public domain, you can literally use the whole thing legally (song, book, movie, etc.).

  11. Avatar
    sharonkconnell January 13, 2020 at 11:12 am #

    Thank you for this valuable information, Steve. We have to be so very careful when we use information that has been put out on the internet. I lshare these articles with my writers and readers FB group forum because there are so many new writers out there who are totally unaware of the problems in using copyright information.

  12. Avatar
    aflcoker January 13, 2020 at 11:28 am #

    “. . . works published between 1923 and 1977 were given an extension to their copyright from 75 years to 95 years. . . . This means that works published in 1924 are now in the public domain.”
    Steve, I may not be doing the math correctly, but this is the way I interpret what you wrote:
    1924 is “between 1923 and 1977,” so works published in 1924 would be copyrighted due to the extension. Correct my thinking, please.
    And where would I get a list of hymns now moved into public domain, besides what I find on websites?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 13, 2020 at 11:35 am #

      You are correct. 1924 plus 95 years = 2019. So on January 1, 2020 the properties published in 1924 become public domain.

      Most hymnals have the year of publication as part of the info in the bottom corners of the song. The left side is usually the name of the person who wrote the lyrics. The right side usually shows the name of the person who composed the music.
      They are two separate things. One may be public domain, the other may not. Be sure you know the difference before using something without permission.

      You can also check out the Public Domain Hymns web site (https://www.pdhymns.com/). The site was updated last week.

  13. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell January 13, 2020 at 12:03 pm #

    Listening to Rhapsody in Blue makes me think of Tom and Jerry.

  14. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan January 13, 2020 at 12:20 pm #

    good or bad this is great information and timely for so many authors.

  15. Avatar
    mimionlife January 13, 2020 at 2:20 pm #

    Very interesting.

  16. Avatar
    tracikenworth January 13, 2020 at 7:44 pm #

    Interesting.

  17. Avatar
    Steven Stoops January 16, 2020 at 12:24 pm #

    My mother listened to Rhapsody in Blue so often I hear it in my sleep. Fifty years later it is still one of my favorite pieces of music. I think I will use part of it for a church countdown to celebrate!!

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