After a 20 year delay, works from 1923 will finally enter the public domain tomorrow

After a twenty year hiatus, tomorrow will finally see the 95 year long copyrights of works released in 1923 expire. These 1923 films, books and songs will effectively be the first to enter the public domain in the US since 1998, and Duke University notes that it will include such classics as Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim, Jacob’s Room by Viginia Woolf, and the song Charleston (based on the popular dance of the same name).

Welcoming classic works to the public domain was an annual New Year’s Day tradition. Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 directorial debut, The Kid, became public on January 1st, 1997, and was joined by the 1922 German horror classic Nosferatu a year later. But in 1998, Congress extended the length of copyright from 75 years to 95, or from 50 to 70 years after the author’s death. The result of the legislation was to effectively prevent any new works from entering the public domain.

Lawmakers argued the legislation was necessary to protect the revenues of US entertainment industry, and bring US law into line with European law — but it was really about protecting Mickey Mouse. The first Mickey Mouse cartoons were released in 1928, and the new rules extended Disney’s control of the copyright until at least 2023.

However, on January 1st 2019, the first works protected by the CTEA’s new 95 year limit will expire. These books, films and songs will now be free for anyone to copy, reproduce, present, or perform, without having to gain permission or pay royalty fees to their original rights holders. Google will be able to make full books available to read through its Google Books service, anyone will be able to upload the films to YouTube, and amateur theaters will be able to produce plays without needing to seek permission.

Duke University notes that public domain has had a huge impact on the popularity of past works. It’s A Wonderful Life became a Christmas classic after it entered the public domain in 1975. TV stations believed that they were free to show the film without paying royalties.

Unfortunately, copyright law is rarely that simple. In 1990, a ruling by the US Supreme Court made it so that the copyright holder of an original story can have control over works derived from it. In this case, the owner turned out to be Republic Pictures, which owned the rights to the original story that the film was based on. In 1993 Republic Pictures started sending out cease and desist letters to television stations that showed the film without its permission, and It’s a Wonderful Life effectively disappeared from the public domain.

It’s a similarly complicated story for the song Happy Birthday. After a two year legal battle, in 2015 a judge ruled that the music publisher Warner/Chappell could no longer claim copyright over the song’s commercial use, since its copyright only covered specific piano arrangements. The song’s melody is originally thought to have been composed all the way back in 1893.

Of course, these works are just the ones we know about. A significant benefit of the public domain is in protecting the films, songs, and books that would otherwise disappear from the public record because it’s not profitable enough for their rights holders to restore or republish them. After 95 years, many of these will have already disappeared. Hopefully, in 2019, the process of unearthing those that haven’t can begin.

If you’re looking to explore some of the works that will shortly become freely available, then Duke University and The Public Domain Review have compiled lists, while the latter also has a collection of online resources that publish public domain works.


This is very complicated. While the movie with Chaplin is free, the use of your name/trademark is not. So I don’t know much you can use the publuc domain movie without possible legal problems anyway.

The cynic in me believes the fun will stop once it starts affecting the mouse in 2023.

there is a beautiful list of characters in the next 20 years that will go public, but from what I understand they will still be trademarked, so idk what you can get away with.

The story of "It’s a Wonderful Life" is confusing to me. Was the copyright of the original work not expired, but the derived work was? How does that happen?

My guess is that they properly renewed the copyright for the original short story, while forgetting to renew the copyright for the movie.

Sounds like the copyright on the original story expired and stations thought they could air the derivative movie, when in fact it was covered by its own (later) copyright.

For some reason, a derivative work that lapsed its copyright can be restored if the source material it depicts is still copyrighted. Yep, "public domain infringement" practically speaking.

Protecting private industry is the primary focus of the US Congress and apparently the supreme court too.
It’s precisely why lawmakers want to copy European entertainment law but when it comes to European healthcare law…. not a chance in hell. Mandatory private for-profit insurance or you can drop dead.

Unfortunately, this puts a dent in my primary question to US Supreme Court justice nominees: How many times can the ever-expanding copyright law created by Congress be repeatedly extended before it violates the copyright clause of the Constitution which expressly states that copy rights must have limited duration

Unpopular opinion: Disney should retain rights to all their property, as the author (the corporate entity) never dies. Derivative works, on the other hand, should be free after the threshold is reached.

That said, this might be an underlying cause of all the "live action" remakes – creating new works of significantly similar material to generate a new copyright date.

Disney is doing well with their live action remakes.
Disney is being a good steward of Disney properties.

…But CBS/Paramount are terrible stewards of Star Trek, signing away 10-year Star Trek name rights to the franchise "JJTrek:KidzCartoonStarWarz(but live action)" and then giving away the rest to Alex Kurtzman (AKA:Slayer of loved-franchise fandom) the moment the JJ contract expired, while blinding themselves to the opportunity presented to co-opt Axanar which was practically a gift-wrapped Christmas present to CBS investors looking for built-up Star Trek demand and the hard work & product development market risks already taken care of by somebody else!

Or the Bayformers franchise, which got the name and made billions of dollars…but didn’t look or feel like Transformers, and likely still would have made billions of dollars regardless of the name the project was trademarked under. That was a very inefficient application of the Transformers trademark for the fans who had to wait till the end of 2018 for an actual live-action Transformers movie [Bumblebee].

StarWars — Still undergoing observation, but Disney has a pretty good track record and I would bet they can right the ship before it sinks too far.

Indiana Jones feels dead & abandoned; so too Robocop & Wing Commander.
But BSG & Rocky have both shown promising revivals in recent memory.

Now the big question is
when can I publish my epic sequel: Gone With the Wind 2: Scarlett’s Revenge!!

Alexandra Ripley’s sequel Scarlett was published in 1991.

I sorta followed you through Star Trek, but once you got to Transformers, a cartoon explicitly created to sell toys, you lost me.

So what will happen in 2013 then?

It wasn’t just Disney. The Gershwin and Hammerstein estates were also deeply involved in the Bono act.

I feel like Mickey Mouse et al should remain the exclusive use of Disney due to their use as extensions of their brand. Likewise, with the Looney Tunes characters and WB, Superman/Batman and DC, Ronald McDonald and McDonalds, etc. This close association means that malicious use could create actual damage to the brand. Imagine a Burger King commercial featuring Ronald McDonald declaring the whopper superior, or a movie where Superman and Batman are serial child molesters, A separate classification should be created to protect these characters without necessarily extending the copyright of the earliest works that feature them. ("Steamboat Willie" would be public domain but Mickey Mouse would not be).
IANAL, but this can’t be all that difficult for someone to figure out with billions on the line.

Exactly, Mickey Mouse as a character is already covered by trademark law. Just because "Steamboat Willie" enters the public domain doesn’t mean anyone will be able to go making their own movies featuring Mickey Mouse. So why was it Disney’s business bankrolling the 1998 Sonny Bono copyright extension in the first place? No real reason, not going to impact Disney’s bottom line, just Disney being complete d—ks as usual. They took a lot of inspiration from infamous anti-Semite Walt to heart

Walt Disney Company is the worst of the worst. F U Bob Iger for s—tting all over my hopes and dreams

Don’t forget that many of Disney’s most successful films were based on public domain works. This is how the system was supposed to work. The original author has a chance to benefit then it passes to the community to use as a building block for larger works.

Copyright is supposed to be an agreement between a society and its creators. The government protects creators and in turn the creators ultimatly have their works pass back to society for the greater good. It should not be a way of creating passive revenue generation indefinitely.

View All Comments
Back to top ↑