These Works Are Now in the Public Domain
The latest additions are a rich trove of books, films, songs and other works from 1927
In a 2020 lawsuit, Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate argued that Enola Holmes, a book series and Netflix adaptation that follows Sherlock Holmes’ brilliant teenage sister, violated copyright laws.
Doyle, of course, never wrote a sister for Sherlock. Even if he had, most of his Holmes stories have been in the public domain for quite some time, which means that they are free for anyone to adapt or use as they please. Copyrights for his last few stories, however, have not yet expired, which complicates matters: Details from early stories are fair game, while elements exclusive to later stories aren’t.
The estate argued that early Sherlock Holmes is cold and rational, while the later versions of the character—the versions still protected—have a heart. When Doyle wrote his final Sherlock stories in the wake of World War I, “it was no longer enough that the Holmes character was the most brilliant rational and analytical mind,” reads the lawsuit. “Holmes needed to be human. The character needed to develop human connection and empathy.”
The legal argument, in a nutshell: Sensitive Sherlock is protected by copyright. And in Enola Holmes, the character has too much heart.
The estate eventually settled the lawsuit with the defendants, which included Netflix, Penguin Random House and others, but soon the questions it raises will be irrelevant. On January 1, 2023, copyrighted works from 1927, which include Doyle’s final Holmes stories, will enter the public domain in the United States.
Every year, Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke University School of Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, puts together an extensive list of expiring U.S. copyrights, many of which have a life span of 95 years. (Copyrights in the U.S. are dictated by Congress; Duke provides a helpful guide to the intricacies of copyright law here.)
“Why celebrate the public domain?” Jenkins writes on the center’s website. “When works go into the public domain, they can legally be shared, without permission or fee. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can perform the music publicly, without paying licensing fees.”
Besides, she adds, “1927 was a long time ago.” When works from 1927 enter the public domain after a 95-year wait, “anyone can rescue them from obscurity and make them available, where we can all discover, enjoy and breathe new life into them.”
Sherlock aside, we’re getting access to a rich variety of books, songs and films in 2023. Here are a few highlights:
“The Best Things in Life Are Free” by George Gard De Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson
A fitting addition to the public domain, this song’s lyrics claim that even great riches can’t measure up against flowers, robins and sunbeams. While the tune comes from the 1927 musical Good News, it also had a moment in 2014 during the final season of “Mad Men,” when ad executive Bert Cooper dies—and then reappears, briefly, to sing a song:
The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life are free
The stars belong to everyone
They gleam there for you and me
Incidentally, Cooper is played by Robert Morse, a Tony-winning Broadway star who died in 2022 at age 90.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Woolf is perhaps most famous for Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925 and already in the public domain. But by the following year, as she was revising To the Lighthouse, she already believed that it was “easily the best of my books”—“freer and subtler” than Mrs. Dalloway, and “occupied with more interesting things,” as she wrote in a diary entry on November 23, 1926. The novel, which has little in the way of plot—Woolf is much more concerned with how her characters perceive the world around them—examines the Ramsay family’s vacation on the Isle of Skye and plans to visit a nearby lighthouse.
Time Regained by Marcel Proust
In Search of Lost Time, a French novel divided into seven parts, is widely considered one of the greatest books of all time. It’s also widely viewed as a prohibitively challenging read. Proust’s frenetic, sprawling sentences can be hundreds of words long, but admirers of his work say the length is part of the point. As novelist André Aciman wrote in Literary Hub in 2016, Proust’s distinctive style is a “precise and incisive tool” used in service of parsing “the convolutions that make us who we are and capture what we really feel—not what we claim to feel or wish to believe we feel.” The novel’s final volume, Time Regained, was published in 1927, five years after the author’s death at age 51.
The Jazz Singer
One of the most seminal pictures in film history, The Jazz Singer marked the end of the silent film era and the rise of the “talkies.” Directed by Alan Crosland, it’s the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue, and it features six songs performed by its star, Al Jolson. It is, fittingly, a story about the push-pull between tradition and modernization: A Jewish cantor in Manhattan hopes his 13-year-old son will follow in his shoes, but he is shocked to find the boy more interested in singing jazz. Jolson notoriously sings the climactic final number in blackface, a performance he always insisted “symbolized his identification with African American suffering and music,” per Jewish Currents.
Helmed by German director Fritz Lang, Metropolis is a silent film examining the tensions between a city’s workers and its wealthy upper class. It is perhaps most famous for its innovative production design and special effects: Since its debut, a number of science fiction films that followed—including Blade Runner (1982)—were heavily inspired by the unique mise-en-scène of Lang’s dystopian drama. Several scenes were cut after the 1927 debut, and film historians believed they were lost to history—until they were rediscovered in 2008. Since the film’s 1927 premiere, “its deepest concerns have hardly faded, and indeed seem freshly urgent,” wrote critic A.O. Scott in the New York Times in 2010. “The problem at the core of Metropolis is not the ravenous machinery of the industrial system, but the brutal inequality that makes the machine run.”
The Tower Treasure by Franklin W. Dixon (The first Hardy Boys mystery)
Since their introduction, teenage sleuths Frank and Joe Hardy have appeared in dozens of stories, TV shows and video games. But the Hardy Boys franchise traces its origins back to the first book in the series, published in 1927: The Tower Treasure. The books were attributed to Franklin W. Dixon, but they were actually written by a team of ghostwriters; Leslie McFarlane is the author behind 19 of the first 25 books.
“(I Scream You Scream, We All Scream for) Ice Cream” by Howard Johnson, Billy Moll and Robert A. King
Much as the ubiquitous “Happy Birthday” song was under copyright for generations, only entering the public domain in 2015, this short ditty about the frozen treats could have been subject to a copyright dispute. Beyond its famous refrain, the song has many more lyrics that describe an imaginary “Eskimo” college known as “Oogiewawa.” In public memory, however, it’s no longer associated with these racist lyrics, and it has spawned many adaptations over the decades—including a ventriloquist act from the ’50s, a Hershey’s commercial from the ’90s, and an appearance on “Barney & Friends.” (Of note, the lyricist Howard Johnson here is of no relation to the Howard Johnson of soda shop fame.)
The silent film, directed by William A. Wellman, follows two fighter pilots who serve in World War I and fight over a woman named Sylvia Lewis. It’s famous for its pioneering action cinematography—particularly a long dolly shot through a crowd that inspired a scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi—and for winning the very first Academy Award for best picture. (The Jazz Singer was deemed ineligible for the category and given special recognition, as putting a “talkie” against silent films was thought of as unfair to the competition.) The ceremony, held in 1929, had practically none of the pomp and circumstance inherent in today’s Oscars, when presenters suspensefully open an envelope with the phrase, “And the winner is…” At the 1929 ceremony, per the New York Times, the winners had already been announced in print several months earlier. Announcing the winners took just 15 minutes, and the rest of the night was filled with merriment and dancing.
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
Hesse’s autobiographical novel, written in German, follows Harry Haller, an intelligent, despairing man who compares the worst parts of himself to a “wolf of the steppes.” Grappling with existential misery and despising the conventions of bourgeois society, he struggles to forge human connections or find respite from his suffering without compromising his ideals. Hesse won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946, sparking interest in his work outside of Germany.
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Doyle first put the master of deductive reasoning into the world with the novel A Study in Scarlet in 1887. After that, the Holmes canon would grow to include three more novels, as well as 56 short stories. In recent decades, the mysteries have collectively spawned more than 250 screen adaptations—not to mention countless print retellings—that play around with genre, gender and more. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes contains the last of Doyle’s stories that were still protected under U.S. copyright laws. The writer died at age 71 in 1930, three years after its publication.