What Entered the Public Domain This Year?

In the United States, under U.S. copyright law, works published in 1925 and earlier are now in public domain. One can publish them or use them without securing copyright permission. In case you are wondering about the specifics, the Copyright Term Extension Act (passed in 1998) gave works published from 1923 through 1977 a 95-year term limit. They enter public domain on January 1 after the conclusion of the 95th year.

It gets a little complicated because anything copyrighted before 1977 had only a 28-year protection. The copyright had to be renewed in the 28th year, or the book went into public domain. It is estimated that as much as 85% of such properties were not renewed and are now in public domain. But determining that for certain can be quite a task!

By the way, this happens not only with books but anything under copyright like films and music.

A few notable titles are on this year’s list:
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time (his first novel)
Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith
Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys
Aldous Huxley, Those Barren Leaves
W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction

Note that while these books are in public domain, you can’t slap your name on them and claim you wrote them. There’s a word for that: plagiarism. However, if you wanted to create a derivative story like The Great Gatsby Goes to Mars or Mrs. Dalloway Gets a Job at Burger King, you can certainly do so without getting permission first.

On a trivia note, there was an awful book first published in 1925 as well. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. Since there doesn’t appear to be a record of a copyright renewal in 1953, that work is in the public domain. But if there had been a question, it has been 95 years and is no longer under copyright protection.

And if you want to plan ahead? In 2022 the following are on the list to slide into the public domain:
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Land of Mist
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Franz Kafka, The Castle
T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Dorothy L. Sayers, Clouds of Witness
Ruth Plumly Thompson, The Hungry Tiger of Oz

21 Responses to What Entered the Public Domain This Year?

  1. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 8, 2021 at 7:50 am #

    The great Jay Gatsby went to Mars,
    and there met Mrs. Dalloway,
    and I thank my lucky stars
    that that is where they’re gonna stay,
    for they are a pretentious lot,
    and that includes Jay’s sidekick,
    whose name I seem to have forgot,
    and, hey, oh yeah, it’s Nick.
    They help dear old Clarissa plan
    green litte men’s party seatin’
    but the locals did not understand
    that it’s not the hosts they’re eatin’,
    and before we get much further,
    care for nice and fresh GatsBurger?

  2. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka February 8, 2021 at 9:17 am #

    As I read the list of titles that are public domain this year, I had a story idea come to mind as I considered The Great Gatsby. Thanks for sharing this, Steve!

  3. Avatar
    Peggy Rychwa/Sheryl Marcoux February 8, 2021 at 11:43 am #

    Perhaps being in public domain would make it possible to write a sequel for these books?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube February 8, 2021 at 4:15 pm #

      Peggy,

      Yes, you could.

      But who would read it? 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Cole Powell February 8, 2021 at 1:45 pm #

    Thanks for sharing, Steve!

    Quick question:

    Do you know if it’s legal to make a derivative work of a public domain book for a DIFFERENT medium, when another entity purchased the adaptation rights to that book BEFORE it entered the public domain?

    For instance, Disney purchased the film rights to Winnie-the-Pooh in 1961. But when the original book enters the public domain next year, could I–oh, I don’t know–film a live-action zombie version called The Hundred Acre Woods of Death? I’m, uh, asking for a friend.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube February 8, 2021 at 4:05 pm #

      Contact an intellectual property attorney before doing anything. Assuming could get you sued.

      • Avatar
        Cole Powell February 8, 2021 at 5:08 pm #

        Oh, definitely! I just thought perhaps you may have had that info stored in your vast mental library. Thank you, sir!

        P.S. I’m not–I mean, “my friend” isn’t actually considering a “Zombie-the-Pooh Bear” flick…yet. 😉

        • Avatar
          Steve Laube February 8, 2021 at 5:24 pm #

          I hope not. Prefer we not ruin a wonderful childhood icon.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 8, 2021 at 6:25 pm #

      Winnie the Pooh faced with dread
      the Hundred-Acre-Wood,
      for it was full of living dead;
      this could not be good!
      Poor Tigger was the first to go,
      his spring was his demise,
      but one really had to know
      that ‘boing!’ let off surprise.
      The donkey’s fate can be surmised;
      indeed it must have been expected
      but however hard the ombies tried,
      Eeyore would remain dejectced,
      and salvation fell to one (plus two),
      Chris Robin, Kanga, and (yes!) Roo.

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 8, 2021 at 6:37 pm #

        Apologies to the zombies who, in the eleventh line, lost their Z.

      • Avatar
        Cole Powell February 8, 2021 at 6:59 pm #

        Hilarious, Andrew! Your ability to take a random idea and instantaneously transform it into a humorous, metrical, rhyming work of art is uncanny. My hat’s off to you, sir!

  5. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks February 8, 2021 at 1:50 pm #

    I’m curious about what happens to royalties once a work is in the public domain. I would think that most writers hoped that their work would continue to assist their grandchildren and great grandchildren after they were gone.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube February 8, 2021 at 4:15 pm #

      Kristen,

      This post was about property published before 1925. The copyright law was revised in 1978 to include property published between 1923 and 1978.

      Anything published after 1978 is under copyright. The term is author’s lifetime plus 70 years. Which likely covers a couple generations of your family.

      After that the book is in public domain. Book contract usually read that the rights are granted to the publisher for the life of the copyright (unless reverted to the author earlier).

      So if you publish with GGGG Publishing this year. You go to glory in 2025, AND your book continues to sell, it could be published by GGGG until 2095. At that point it goes into public domain and anyone can publish without paying the estate.

      My guess? By 2095 the laws over copyright may change. !!!

      Who knows? Maybe by then data is transmitted via embedded brain chips.

      A YA author created an interesting book on a scary premise. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED by Gregory Stott Katsoulis. In the story every word is copyrighted. So when you speak or write a word it is deducted from your bank account. Also a corporation created a program to compose every possible variation of music and copyrighted them all. So if you sing anything, it is deducted from your bank account.

      Sort of like having Alexa or Google Home listening to every word spoken in your home.

  6. Avatar
    Charis Rae February 13, 2021 at 7:12 am #

    Thanks so much for this! Shared it with some of my writing friends. Is there a way to know if copyrights have been/will be renewed?

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