The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it. Currently, a copyright’s term is for life of the author plus 70 years, or 95 years from the date of publication for works made for hire. And because a work’s copyright expires on December 31 of the relevant expiration year, works enter the public domain on January 1 of the following year. Thus, all works first published in 1924 entered the public domain on January 1, 2020.
For a brief breakdown of copyright term, the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998, also known as the Sonny Bono Act, extended copyright terms in the United States. Following the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship. The 1976 Act also increased the extension term for works copyrighted before 1978 that had not already entered the public domain from 28 years to 47 years, giving a total term of 75 years.
The 1998 Act extended these terms to the life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever end is earlier. Copyright protection for works published before January 1, 1978 were increased by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.
Because of this legislation, no new works fell into the public domain between 1998 and 2018, due to expiration. The law effectively "froze" the advancement date of the public domain in the United States for works covered by the older fixed term copyright rules. Under this Act, works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still protected by copyright in 1998 would not enter the public domain until January 1, 2019 or later. However, since this “grace” period has since expired, works enter the public domain on January 1 of each subsequent year.
A brief list of works entering the Public Domain on January 1, 2020 is below.
- Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator
- Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy and Hot Water
- The first film adaptation of Peter Pan
- The Sea Hawk
- He Who Gets Slapped
- Dante’s Inferno
- Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
- E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
- Eugene O’Neill, Desire Under the Elms
- Edith Wharton, Old New York (four novellas)
- A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young
- Hugh Lofting, Doctor Dolittle’s Circus
- Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Ant Men
- Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit
- Lord Dunsany (Edward Plunkett), The King of Elfland’s Daughter
- Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin
- Fascinating Rhythm and Oh, Lady Be Good, music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin
- Lazy, Irving Berlin
- Jealous Hearted Blues, Cora “Lovie” Austin (composer, pianist, bandleader)
- Santa Claus Blues, Charley Straight and Gus Kahn (recorded by Louis Armstrong)
- Nobody’s Sweetheart, music Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, lyrics Gus Kahn and Ernie Erdman
It’s important to note that only the musical compositions referred to above entered the public domain. Subsequent arrangements, orchestrations, or recordings of those compositions might still be copyrighted. You are free to copy, perform, record, or adapt Gershwin’s composition of “Rhapsody in Blue”, but you would likely still need permission to use a specific recording of the composition.
Notable works entering the public domain over the next few years: The Great Gatsby – 2021 (the novel, not any film adaptations) Mickey Mouse – 2025