As you may or may not know, today is the day that a great number of artistic works leave the protections of copyright law and enter the public domain. Specifically, works from 1925 (95 years ago). Probably the most notable work of the bunch is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But that’s not the only notable work. BBC’s Jane Ciabattari declares 1925 was “a golden moment in literary history.” While “several years including 1862, 1899 and 1950″ are contenders, ” one year towers above these…. In fact, 1925 may well be literature’s greatest year”
Books that came out in 1862, for instance, included Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. But Gustave Flaubert’s novel of that year, Sallambo, set in Carthage during the 3rd Century BC, was no match for Madame Bovary. George Eliot’s historical novel Romola and Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm were also disappointments.
The year 1899 is another contender for literature’s best. Kate Chopin’s seminal work The Awakening was published then, as was Frank Norris’s McTeague and two Joseph Conrad classics – Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim (serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine). But Tolstoy’s last novel Resurrection, published also in 1899, was more shaped by his religious and political ideals than a powerful sense of character; and Henry James’ The Awkward Age was a failed experiment – a novel written almost entirely in dialogue.
And in 1950 there were published books from Isaac Asimov (I, Robot), Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles), Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train), Doris Lessing (The Grass Is Singing) and CS Lewis (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). But other great fiction writers produced lesser works that year – Ernest Hemingway’s minor Across the River and into the Trees; Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City, written under the influence of Thomas Wolfe; John Steinbeck’s poorly received play-in-novel-format Burning Bright and Evelyn Waugh’s only historical novel, the Empress Helena (Roman emperor Constantine’s Christian mother goes in search of relics of the Cross).
But 1925 brought something unique – a vibrant cultural outpouring, multiple landmark books and a paradigm shift in prose style. Literary work that year reflected a world in the aftermath of tremendous upheaval. The brutality of World War One, with some 16 million dead and 70 million mobilised to fight, had left its mark on the Lost Generation. In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf created the indelible shell-shocked veteran Septimus Smith, “with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?”
Before I nerd out any more, let’s take a quick detour into the context of the journey of various works into the public domain.
Before 1998, copyrighted works had a 75-year exclusivity period before entering the public domain – the theory behind this being, basically, that a 75-year period of exclusivity was plenty of incentive for people to create artistic works.
But Congress, in 1998, increased this from 75 years to 95 years in a law commonly known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” (Mickey Mouse appeared in 1928, and will enter the public domain in 2023/2024 (unless, of course, Congress moves the goalposts again)). Of course, we can all be certain that the passage of this law was entirely out of concern for the artistic rights of creators and certainly had absolutely nothing to do with lobbying efforts by large and wealthy owners of particularly lucrative copyrights (like, oh… I don’t know… Mickey Mouse?). Likewise, the previous copyright extension in 1976 certainly would not have had anything to do with lobbying efforts by the owners of any large or prominent copyrights.
So what does it mean that a work enters the public domain? The public domain is a space where there are no intellectual property rights. The works that exist in the public domain may be used without fee, permission, attribution, restriction, or any of the other “typical” features of intellectual property/copyrights/etc.
Without further ado, here is the incomplete, very partial, impromptu list of works that I believe are entering the public domain today, based on my research (disclaimer: double-check yourself that I have the publication date right before running out and risking a copyright violation with any of these)
- The Freshman
- The Merry Widow
- Stella Dallas
- Go West
- His People
- Lovers in Quarantine
- Pretty Ladies
- The Unholy Three
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
- Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
- Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time
- Franz Kafka, The Trial (in German)
- Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
- John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
- Alain Locke, The New Negro (contributions by W.E.B. du Bois, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Eric Walrond)
- Sinclair Lewis, Arrowsmith
- Agatha Christie, The Secret of Chimneys
- Aldous Huxley, Those Barren Leaves
- W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
- Dorothy Scarborough, On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs
- Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction
- Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, A Daughter of the Samurai
- Always, by Irving Berlin
- Sweet Georgia Brown, by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard & Kenneth Casey
- Works by Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” including Army Camp Harmony Blues and Shave ’Em Dry
- Looking for a Boy, by George & Ira Gershwin
- Manhattan, by Lorenz Hart & Richard Rodgers
- Ukulele Lady, by Gus Kahn & Richard Whiting
- Yes Sir, That’s My Baby, by Gus Kahn & Walter Donaldson
- Works by ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton, including Shreveport Stomps and Milenberg Joys
- Works by W.C. Handy, including Friendless Blues, Bright Star of Hope, and When the Black Man Has a Nation of His Own
- Works by Duke Ellington, including Jig Walk and With You
- Works by ‘Fats’ Waller, including Anybody Here Want To Try My Cabbage, Ball and Chain Blues, and Campmeetin’ Stomp
- Works by Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” including Dixie Flyer Blues, Tired of Voting Blues, and Telephone Blues
- Works by Lovie Austin, including Back Biting Woman’s Blues, Southern Woman’s Blues, and Tennessee Blues
- Works by Sidney Bechet, including Waltz of Love, Naggin’ at Me, and Dreams of To-morrow
- Works by Fletcher Henderson, including Screaming the Blues
- Works by Sippie Wallace, including Can Anybody Take Sweet Mama’s Place
Let’s close this installment of “literature nerd meets business lawyer explaining basics of copyright” with one more quote from BBC’s Jane Ciabattari:
Was 1925 the greatest year in literature? The ultimate proof, 90 years later, is the shape-shifting the novel has undergone, still based on these early inspirations – and the continuing resonance of Nick Adams, Jay Gatsby and Clarissa Dalloway. These characters from a transformative time are still enthralling generations of new readers.
Happy New Year, y’all!