An Avalanche of Novels, Films and Other Works of Art Will Soon Enter the Public Domain: Virginia Woolf, Charlie Chaplin, William Carlos Williams, Buster Keaton & More

There may be no sweet­er sound to the ears of Open Cul­ture writ­ers than the words “pub­lic domain”—you might even go so far as to call it our “cel­lar door.” The phrase may not be as musi­cal, but the fact that many of the world’s cul­tur­al trea­sures can­not be copy­right­ed in per­pe­tu­ity means that we can con­tin­ue to do what we love: curat­ing the best of those trea­sures for read­ers as they appear online. Pub­lic domain means com­pa­nies can sell those works with­out incur­ring any costs, but it also means that any­one can give them away for free. “Any­one can re-pub­lish” pub­lic domain works, notes Life­hack­er, “or chop them up and use them in oth­er projects.” And there­by emerges the remix­ing and repur­pos­ing of old arti­facts into new ones, which will them­selves enter the pub­lic domain of future gen­er­a­tions.

Some of those future works of art may even become the next Great Amer­i­can Nov­el, if such a thing still exists as any­thing more than a hack­neyed cliché. Of course, no one seri­ous­ly goes around say­ing they’re writ­ing the “Great Amer­i­can Nov­el,” unless they’re Philip Roth in the 70s or William Car­los Williams (top right) in the 20s, who both some­how pulled off using the phrase as a title (though Roth’s book does­n’t quite live up to it.) Where Roth casu­al­ly used the con­cept in a light nov­el about base­ball, Williams’ The Great Amer­i­can Nov­el approached it with deep con­cern for the sur­vival of the form itself. His mod­ernist text “engages the tech­niques of what we would now call metafic­tion,” writes lit­er­ary schol­ar April Boone, “to par­o­dy worn out for­mu­las and con­tent and, iron­i­cal­ly, to cre­ate a new type of nov­el that antic­i­pates post­mod­ern fic­tion.”

We will all, as of Jan­u­ary 1, 2019, have free, unfet­tered access to Williams’ metafic­tion­al shake-up of the for­mu­la­ic sta­tus quo, when “hun­dreds of thou­sands of… books, musi­cal scores, and films first pub­lished in the Unit­ed States dur­ing 1923” enter the pub­lic domain, as Glenn Fleish­man writes at The Atlantic. Because of the com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ry of U.S. copy­right law—especially the 1998 “Son­ny Bono Act” that suc­cess­ful­ly extend­ed a copy­right law from 50 to 70 years (for the sake, it’s said, of Mick­ey Mouse)—it has been twen­ty years since such a mas­sive trove of mate­r­i­al has become avail­able all at once. But now, and “for sev­er­al decades from 2019 onward,” Fleish­man points out, “each New Year’s Day will unleash a full year’s worth of works pub­lished 95 years ear­li­er.”

In oth­er words, it’ll be Christ­mas all over again in Jan­u­ary every year, and while you can browse the pub­li­ca­tion dates of your favorite works your­self to see what’s com­ing avail­able in com­ing years, you’ll find at The Atlantic a short list of lit­er­ary works includ­ed in next-year’s mass-release, includ­ing books by Aldous Hux­ley, Win­ston Churchill, Carl Sand­burg, Edith Whar­ton, and P.G. Wode­house. Life­hack­er has sev­er­al more exten­sive lists, which we excerpt below:

Movies [see many more at Indiewire]

All these movies, includ­ing:

  • Cecil B. DeMille’s (first, less famous, silent ver­sion of) The Ten Com­mand­ments
  • Harold Lloyd’s Safe­ty Last!, includ­ing that scene where he dan­gles off a clock tow­er, and his Why Wor­ry?
  • A long line-up of fea­ture-length silent films, includ­ing Buster Keaton’s Our Hos­pi­tal­ityand Char­lie Chaplin’s The Pil­grim
  • Short films by Chap­lin, Keaton, Lau­rel and Hardy, and Our Gang (lat­er Lit­tle Ras­cals)
  • Car­toons includ­ing Felix the Cat(the char­ac­ter first appeared in a 1919 car­toon)
  • Mar­lene Dietrich’s film debut, a bit part in the Ger­man silent com­e­dy The Lit­tle Napoleon; also the debuts of Dou­glas Fair­banks Jr. and Fay Wray


All this music, includ­ing these clas­sics:

  • “King Porter Stomp”
  • “Who’s Sor­ry Now?”
  • “Tin Roof Blues”
  • “That Old Gang of Mine”
  • “Yes! We Have No Bananas”
  • “I Cried for You”
  • “The Charleston”—written to accom­pa­ny, and a big fac­tor in the pop­u­lar­i­ty of, the Charleston dance
  • Igor Stravinsky’s “Octet for Wind Instru­ments”


All these booksand these books, includ­ing the clas­sics:

  • Mrs. Dal­loway by Vir­ginia Woolf
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
  • The Ego and the Id by Sig­mund Freud
  • Towards a New Archi­tec­ture by Le Cor­busier
  • Whose Body?, the first Lord Peter Wim­sey nov­el by Dorothy L. Say­ers
  • Two of Agatha Christie’s Her­cule Poirot nov­els, The Mur­der of Roger Ack­royd and The Mur­der on the Links
  • The Pris­on­er, vol­ume 5 of Mar­cel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (note that Eng­lish trans­la­tions have their own copy­rights)
  • The Com­plete Works of Antho­ny Trol­lope
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan
  • Short sto­ries by Christie, Vir­ginia Woolf, H.P. Love­craft, Kather­ine Mans­field, and Ernest Hem­ing­way
  • Poet­ry by Edna St. Vin­cent Mil­lay, E.E. Cum­mings, William Car­los Williams, Rain­er Maria Rilke, Wal­lace Stevens, Robert Frost, Suku­mar Ray, and Pablo Neru­da
  • Works by Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Edith Whar­ton, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bul­gakov, Jean Cocteau, Ita­lo Sve­vo, Aldous Hux­ley, Win­ston Churchill, G.K. Chester­ton, Maria Montes­sori, Lu Xun, Joseph Con­rad, Zane Grey, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Bur­roughs


These art­works, includ­ing:

  • Con­stan­tin Brâncuși’s Bird in Space
  • Hen­ri Matisse’s Odal­isque With Raised Arms
  • Mar­cel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bach­e­lors, Even (The Large Glass)
  • Yokoya­ma Taikan’s Metempsy­chosis
  • Work by M. C. Esch­er, Pablo Picas­so, Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, Max Ernst, and Man Ray

Again, these are only par­tial lists of high­lights, and such high­lights…. Speak­ing for myself, I can­not wait for free access to the very best (and even worst, and weird­est, and who-knows-what-else) of 1923. And of 1924 in 2020, and 1925 and 2021, and so on and so on….

via The Atlantic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The British Library Puts Over 1,000,000 Images in the Pub­lic Domain: A Deep­er Dive Into the Col­lec­tion

The Pub­lic Domain Project Makes 10,000 Film Clips, 64,000 Images & 100s of Audio Files Free to Use

List of Great Pub­lic Domain Films 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Jeff Golick says:

    Great news, but a word of cau­tion: that Life­hack­er list isn’t entire­ly accu­rate, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the lit­er­a­ture. Folks should con­firm copy­right sta­tus via some­thing a lit­tle more defin­i­tive if look­ing to reuse/repurpose/remix 1923 sources.

  • nickpheas says:

    How can Jane Austen be enter­ing pub­lic domain? She’d been dead for over a hun­dred years in 1923.

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