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Copyright for Students: Copyright Term & Public Domain

Basic information about U.S.C. Title 17 Copyright Law particularly as it relates to higher education.

Public Domain Day

U.S. works from 1928 and earlier have entered the Public Domain.

January 1 is the day when works published in the U.S. 95 years ago enter the public domain making them free from copyright protection. This means they can be legally shared, without permission or fee. In addition to books, there are scores of silent films, famous Broadway songs, and well-known jazz standards. This year recordings from 1923 will become open for legal reuse.

To find more material from 1928 and earlier you can visit the Catalogue of Copyright Entries.

For more information on Public Domain Day see the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

You can read more about the public domain in Professor James Boyle's book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008) — the full text is available for free here.

Last updated January 2nd 2024.

BOOKS & PLAYS in the Public Domain in 2024

Works going into the public domain are the specific works from 1928 as are sound recordings from 1923. This does not include the later books, movies, or translations based on the original books, or all of the other work by that author. For example, while you are free to use Hemingway’s short stories in Men without Women (including Hills Like White Elephants and In Another Country), later books such as A Farewell to Arms (1929) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) are still copyrighted.

Here are just a few of the books that are now freely usable:

  • Virginia Woolf, Orlando
  • Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (in the original German, Im Westen nichts Neues)
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, Dark Princess
  • Claude McKay, Home to Harlem
  • A. A. Milne, illustrations by E. H. Shepard, House at Pooh Corner (introducing the Tigger character)
  • J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (because the play’s script was not “published” for copyright purposes until 1928; note that Barrie’s 1911 novel “Peter and Wendy” has been public domain since 1967)
  • Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness
  • Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall
  • Agatha Christie, The Mystery of the Blue Train
  • Wanda Gág, Millions of Cats (the oldest American picture book still in print)
  • Robert Frost, West-Running Brook
  • Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page

Public Domain Day 2024 by Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

SOUND RECORDINGS in the Public Domain in 2023

In 2022, under a new law called the Music Modernization Act, decades of sound recordings made from the advent of recording technology through the end of 1922 went into the public domain. In 2023 there was a pause, with no sound recordings entering the public domain. Now, in 2024, recordings from 1923 are open for legal reuse. You can download, remix, or use them in a soundtrack. Please note that only the 1923 recordings made by these artists are entering the public domain, not their later recordings.

To listen to old recordings, go to the Library of Congress National Jukebox—in 2024 the Library of Congress will make all of the 1923 recordings in its collection available for download from this site, while recordings from 1924 forward will be streaming-only until they are in the public domain.

  • Charleston (recorded by James P. Johnson)
  • Yes! We Have No Bananas (recorded by Billy Jones; Furman and Nash; Eddie Cantor; Belle Baker; The Lanin Orchestra)
  • Who’s Sorry Now (recorded by Lewis James; The Happy Six; the Original Memphis Five)
  • Down Hearted Blues (recorded by Bessie Smith; Tennessee Ten)
  • Lawdy, Lawdy Blues (recorded by Ida Cox)
  • Southern Blues and Moonshine Blues (recorded by Ma Rainey)
  • Down South Blues (recorded by Hannah Sylvester; The Virginians)
  • Wolverine Blues (recorded by the Benson Orchestra of Chicago)
  • Tin Roof Blues (recorded by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings)
  • That American Boy of Mine and Parade of the Wooden Soldiers (recorded by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra)
  • Dipper Mouth Blues and Froggie More (recorded by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, featuring Louis Armstrong)
  • Bambalina (recorded by the Ray Miller Orchestra)
  • Swingin’ Down the Lane (recorded by the Isham Jones Orchestra; The Shannon Four; The Columbians)

Public Domain Day 2024 by Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

MUSICAL COMPOSITIONS in the Public Domain in 2024

Only the musical compositions—the music and lyrics that you might see on a piece of sheet music—are entering the public domain, not the recordings of those songs, which are covered by a separate copyright. The lyrics and music to Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love) were published in 1928 and will be free for anyone to copy, perform, record, adapt, or interpolate into their own song. But the later recordings by Eartha Kitt, Lady Gaga, and others are still copyrighted. Note, however, that sound recording rights are more limited than composition rights—you can legally imitate a sound recording, even if your imitation sounds exactly the same, you just cannot copy from the actual recording. To hear some great adaptations of public domain songs and other material, visit WNYC’s Public Domain Song Project.

  • Animal Crackers (musical starring the Marx Brothers; book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and lyrics and music by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby)
  • Mack the Knife (original German lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill; from The Threepenny Opera)
  • Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love) (Cole Porter; from the musical Paris)
  • Sonny Boy (George Gard DeSylva, Lew Brown & Ray Henderson; from the film The Singing Fool starring Al Jolson)
  • When You're Smiling (lyrics by Mark Fisher and Joe Goodwin and music by Larry Shay)
  • Empty Bed Blues (J. C. Johnson)
  • I Wanna Be Loved By You (lyrics by Bert Kalmar and music by Herbert Stothart and Harry Ruby; from the musical Good Boy)
  • Makin’ Whoopee! (lyrics by Gus Khan and music by Walter Donaldson)
  • You’re My Necessity, You’re The Cream in My Coffee (George Gard DeSylva, Lew Brown & Ray Henderson; from the musical Hold Everything!)
  • I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby (lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by James Francis)
  • Ramona (lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert and music by Mabel Wayne)
  • There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (Al Jolson, Billy Rose, Dave Dreyer; from the film The Singing Fool)
  • Beau Koo Jack (lyrics by Walter Melrose and music by Alex Hill and Louis Armstrong)
  • Pick Pocket Blues (Bessie Smith)

Public Domain Day 2024 by Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

FILMS in the Public Domain in 2024

1928 was part of the transitional period from silent films to “talkies,” and it brought some of the last great silent pictures as well as the “first ‘all-talking’ picture.” There are features from comedic giants such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy. There are films chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry because they are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” There are winners of some of the first Academy Awards. Please note that while the original footage from the listed films will be in the public domain, newly added material such as musical accompaniment might still be copyrighted.

  • Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy (the silent version) (directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks) 
  • The Cameraman (directed by Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton)
  • Lights of New York (directed by Bryan Foy; billed as “the first ‘all-talking’ picture”)
  • The Circus (directed by Charlie Chaplin)
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  • The Singing Fool (directed by Lloyd Bacon; follow-up to The Jazz Singer)
  • Speedy (directed by Ted Wilde; Harold Lloyd’s last silent theatrical release)
  • In Old Arizona (“100% all talking” film featuring singing cowboys)
  • The Man Who Laughs (directed by Paul Leni; features a character who inspired the appearance of the Joker from Batman)
  • Should Married Men Go Home? (directed by Leo McCarey and James Parrott; the first Laurel and Hardy film to bill them as a team)
  • The Wind (directed by Victor Sjöström)
  • The Wedding March (directed by Erich von Stroheim)
  • The Crowd (directed by King Vidor)
  • The Last Command (directed by Josef von Sternberg; Emil Jannings won the first Academy Award for Best Actor)
  • Street Angel (directed by Frank Borzage; Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for Best Actress)
  • Disney’s remaining Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons (created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks; Oswald was an inspiration for Mickey Mouse)

Public Domain Day 2024 by Jennifer Jenkins, Director of Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

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