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Copyright for Students: 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 1927 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 no sound recordings are entering the public domain—for that, we will have to wait until January 1, 2024, when recordings from 1923 will become open for legal reuse.

To find more material from 1927 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.

BOOKS in the Public Domain in 2023

Works going into the public domain are the specific works from 1927, not 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, To the Lighthouse
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
  • Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
  • Countee Cullen, Copper Sun
  • A. A. Milne, Now We Are Six, illustrations by E. H. Shepard
  • Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  • Ernest Hemingway, Men Without Women (collection of short stories)
  • William Faulkner, Mosquitoes
  • Agatha Christie, The Big Four
  • Edith Wharton, Twilight Sleep
  • Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York (the original 1927 publication)
  • Franklin W. Dixon (pseudonym), The Tower Treasure (the first Hardy Boys book)
  • Hermann Hesse, Der Steppenwolf (in the original German)
  • Franz Kafka, Amerika (in the original German)
  • Marcel Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (the final installment of In Search of Lost Time, in the original French)

SOUND RECORDINGS in the Public Domain in 2023

This year no sound recordings are entering the public domain—for that, we will have to wait until January 1, 2024, when recordings from 1923 will become open for legal reuse.

MUSICAL COMPOSITIONS in the Public Domain in 2023

Every piece of recorded music is covered by two distinct copyrights, one over the original composition—the words and music—and the second over the actual recording of the song. Only the musical compositions are entering the public domain, not the recordings of those songs, which are covered by a separate copyright. For example, Irving Berlin’s words and music to Puttin’ on the Ritz were registered for copyright in 1927 and are now free for anyone to copy, perform, record, adapt, or interpolate into their own song. But the 1930 recordings by Harry Richman and by Fred Astaire are still copyrighted.

  • The Best Things in Life Are Free (George Gard De Sylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson; from the musical Good News)
  • (I Scream You Scream, We All Scream for) Ice Cream (Howard Johnson, Billy Moll, Robert A. King)
  • Puttin’ on the Ritz (Irving Berlin)
  • Funny Face and ’S Wonderful (Ira and George Gershwin; from the musical Funny Face)
  • Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Ol’ Man River (Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern; from the musical Show Boat)
  • Back Water BluesPreaching the BluesFoolish Man Blues (Bessie Smith)
  • Potato Head BluesGully Low Blues (Louis Armstrong)
  • Rusty Pail BluesSloppy Water BluesSoothin’ Syrup Stomp (Thomas Waller)
  • Black and Tan Fantasy and East St. Louis Toodle-O (Bub Miley, Duke Ellington)
  • Billy Goat StompHyena StompJungle Blues (Ferdinand Joseph Morton)
  • My Blue Heaven (George Whiting, Walter Donaldson)
  • Diane (Erno Rapee, Lew Pollack)
  • Mississippi Mud (Harry Barris, James Cavanaugh)

MOVIES in the Public Domain in 2023

1927 marked the beginning of the end of the silent film era, with the release of the first full-length feature with synchronized dialogue and sound. Here are the first words spoken in a feature film from The Jazz Singer“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet.” Please note that while the original footage from these films will be in the public domain, newly added material such as musical accompaniment might still be copyrighted. 

  • Metropolis (directed by Fritz Lang)
  • The Jazz Singer (the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue; directed by Alan Crosland)
  • Wings (winner of the first Academy Award for outstanding picture; directed by William A. Wellman)
  • Sunrise (directed by F.W. Murnau)
  • The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller)
  • The King of Kings (directed by Cecil B. DeMille)
  • London After Midnight (now a lost film; directed by Tod Browning)
  • The Way of All Flesh (now a lost film; directed by Victor Fleming)
  • 7th Heaven (inspired the ending of the 2016 film La La Land; directed by Frank Borzage)
  • The Kid Brother (starring Harold Lloyd; directed by Ted Wilde)
  • The Battle of the Century (starring the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy; directed by Clyde Bruckman)
  • Upstream (directed by John Ford)

Is it in the Public Domain?