‘The Great Gatsby,’ Songs by Ma Rainey and Other Classic Works Are Now in the Public Domain

Canonical books, songs and films became free to use in 2021

Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band
Ma Rainey poses with her band for a studio group shot c. 1924-25. JP Jazz Archive/Redferns via Getty Images

Anyone who’s always wanted to organize a screening of a Buster Keaton film, put out a new arrangement of the jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown,” or write a musical placing The Great Gatsby in the Instagram age now has the chance. As of January 1, 2021, books, songs and films created in 1925 are in the public domain, free for anyone to use without licensing or getting permission from a copyright holder.

“It’s a blockbuster list from 1925,” says Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke University Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, which publishes an annual list of some of the works whose copyrights expire each year. In the United States, copyright terms are set by Congress. The legislative history is long and convoluted (the Duke center has a helpful breakdown of the twists and turns over the years), but the latest act, passed in 1998, stated that most works would definitively enter the public domain 95 years after their creation. In many other countries, most works just go into the public domain 70 years after the death of their author

1925 was, of course, the middle of the Roaring Twenties, a moment of jazz clubs, speakeasies, increased ownership of cars and phones, and the cultural and intellectual movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. It was also squarely in the Jim Crow era, when Blues and jazz songwriters were producing their work against a backdrop of continuing lynchings across the South. And it was the year that, according to the BBC, may have been the “greatest year for books ever,” with novels by Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many more.

Paula Marantz Cohen, professor of English at Drexel University, has written several novels that build on work that’s in the public domain, including Jane Austen in Boca, a version of Pride and Prejudice set in a Florida retirement community, and Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, which transplants Shakespearian drama to New Jersey. She said the fact that Austen and Shakespeare are in the public domain made it possible to engage creatively with their work without the expense and hassle of getting permission from copyright holders. She said the same will probably be true for authors interested in playing with the novels now coming into the public domain.

“You’re going to see a lot more spin-offs, prequels, follow ups,” she says.

That’s equally true in music, with songs by Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Irving Berlin, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and many others now free to use without permission.

“These works will continue to be reimagined in unimagined ways across instrumental mediums or multimedia platforms,” says James Gordon Williams, a musician, composer and African American Studies scholar at Syracuse University. “The world has changed so the music will be reframed in a way that tells the truth about our lives today.”

Along with the potential for creative remixing, Jenkins says, the entry of these works into the public domain means that scholars and the public will simply be able to access them more easily. Websites like Project Gutenberg can put free copies online, and publishers can produce cheap versions. “One of the things is just access to our cultural heritage,” Jenkins says. Already, Penguin Random House has announced the publication of a new edition of The Great Gatsby with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris.

Most creative works from 1925, however, have long been forgotten. Therein lies the rub of such a long copyright term: Those works that never found commercial or critical success in their time are likely to disappear into the great beyond. In the world of cinema, for instance, the Library of Congress estimated that 80 to 90 percent of films made before 1920 had disappeared by 2002 because the material had physically disintegrated.

The batch that entered the public domain in 2021, however, does include some stand-out and remarkable works. Here are just a few:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: A longtime staple of high school English classes and the subject of various film adaptations over the years, this may be the work going into public domain this year that’s most familiar to Americans. Cohen says the book continues to resonate with audiences for its simultaneous celebration and critique of material success. “We both admire Gatsby and we pity him,” she says. It might not be surprising that 1925—the middle of a decade in which the gap between the rich and poor grew enormously—produced not just Gatsby but also Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, another story of social climbing and death.

Songs by Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith: With the recent release of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix, modern audiences got a taste of the music created by the “Mother of the Blues.” Rainey and her protégé and friend Bessie Smith wrote and performed songs with bold, clever lyrics, often with references to their sexual entanglements with both men and women. “They were musically expressing the complex breadth of humanity denied black people in the past and which continues to be denied African Americans today,” Williams says. “Their music, for example was not about idealized, romantic, heterosexual relationships reflected in white lives but about the reality of everyday Black life.”

Among the songs entering the public domain include Rainey’s “Army Camp Harmony Blues” and “Shave ‘Em Dry,” and Smith’s “Dixie Flyer Blues,” “Tired of Voting Blues” and “Telephone Blues.”

The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke: A “who’s who” of the Harlem Renaissance, this collection by Locke, a critic and philosopher known for cultivating the success of fellow black writers and artists, features fiction, poetry and essays by writers including W.E.B. du Bois, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Cohen said the entrance of the book into the public domain could be a huge win for schools, which will be able to provide it to students for free or in 99-cent Kindle editions. With many educators trying to incorporate black history their courses, Cohen forsees a “tremendous market” for the literature collection.

Songs by W.C. Handy, including “Friendless Blues,” “Bright Star of Hope,” and “When the Black Man Has a Nation of His Own”: A teacher, orchestra director and master of multiple instruments, Handy brought the rarely recorded black music of the Deep South to broader audiences across the country and organized the first Blues performance at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Williams explains that Handy was the first to publish a notated blues song. “Since African Americans have historically had less access to ‘legit’ musical training, Handy’s notational skills provided a model of self-determination for African-American composers,” she says.

“Memphis Blues”—Handy’s first published song, sometimes considered the first Blues song ever recorded—was a hit, but Handy didn’t benefit financially from it. After that, he created a publishing company so that he could retain rights to his work. Jenkins said trouble with copyrights was common for black musicians operating in the systemic racism of the early 20th century; often white publishers would steal the legal rights to compositions and the originators of the works would be underpaid. But Handy’s perseverance meant that he was able to profit from, and control his own songs, and his works were kept for posterity.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: The 1920s was a time of enormous literary creativity, and Woolf was one of the great modernist innovators. She was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, an influential group of English writers and thinkers that also included economist John Maynard Keynes, novelist E.M. Forster and painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Mrs. Dalloway is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that offers a window into the minds of its two main characters. “It’s about marriage,” Cohen says. “It’s also about war and about post-traumatic stress.” In Woolf’s own Britain, and in many other countries, all her writing went into the public domain at the end of 2011, 70 years after her death.

Some of 1925’s biggest hits: It will now be a bit easier to record a number of songs that have already been covered by all sorts of musicians for decades. “Sweet Georgia Brown” by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard & Kenneth Casey, familiar to some as the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme song, enters the public domain in 2021. So does Irving Berlin’s “Always,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson, and “Manhattan” by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. Not to mention “Ukelele Lady” by Gus Kahn and Richard Whiting, a song that’s been performed not only by Bing Crosby, Arlo Guthrie and Bette Midler but also in a duet by Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.

“Jim Dandy,” “With You,” and other songs by Duke Ellington: These are songs from early in Ellington’s career, written when he was in his 20s. Ellington would go on to be one of the great jazz band leaders of the 20th century, composing and recording new songs until his death in 1974. In his own time, Williams says, Ellington sometimes got flak from white male critics when he shifted from dance music forms to more ambitious, long-form compositions. “The most important thing about Duke Ellington, beyond his compositions and improvising language was his concept of ‘beyond category,’” Williams says. “He understood and demonstrated long ago that genres are artificial, what musicians describe as the ‘mash-up.’”

Some of the last films of the silent era: 1927 brought the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, making the films of 1925 some of the final silent films before the industry moved on. Among the year’s offerings were Go West, in which vaudeville veteran Buster Keaton befriends a cow, His People, a drama about Jewish life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and The Unholy Three, a crime drama featuring ventriloquism and a violent gorilla. In an oddly fitting coincidence for the current moment, another film coming into the public domain is a comedy titled Lovers in Quarantine.

Buster Keaton: Go West (1925)

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