Party Like It’s 1927 As New Crop of Creative Works Enters the Public Domain

The movie featuring the grandmother of onscreen humanoid robots will become the people’s property in the United States when Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic Metropolis(Opens in a new window) enters the public domain on Sunday—along with other creative works copyrighted that year.

The Jan. 1 expiration of a year’s worth of copyrights makes these works free to share and enjoy and opens them to rewrites and remixes. So if you want to take Lang’s dystopian tale of a city where an industrial ruling class oppresses workers—in which a metallic “machine-human”(Opens in a new window) plays a notable part—and recast it for today’s headlines, you won’t have to pay anybody to do so starting Jan. 1. 

A post(Opens in a new window) from Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain highlights other notable members of the class of 2023, such as Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, the Alan Crosland-directed movie The Jazz Singer, and the music and lyrics of Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.” 

As center director Jennifer Jenkins notes in that post, a quirk of recent revisions to copyright law means that actual sound recordings from 1923 won’t enter the public domain until Jan. 1, 2024.

This is the fifth year that we’ve been able to welcome a new class of public-domain works after a 21-year drought forced by a 1998 law, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act(Opens in a new window), that retroactively tacked on two decades of copyright protection to existing works. 

That statute itself built on decades of Congress reading the Constitution’s functional justification for having intellectual property protection—to “promote the progress of science and useful arts”(Opens in a new window)—as an open-ended excuse to keep extending the government-granted monopoly that is copyright protection. Copyrights originally expired after 14 years(Opens in a new window), but they now run for 70 years after the creator’s life; for corporate-owned works, the term lasts 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever happens first. 

The effective re-opening(Opens in a new window) of the public domain on Jan. 1, 2019 surprised some intellectual-property observers. But it appears Congress has finally lost its appetite to expand copyright terms, even as the 2024 crop of public-domain works will include Steamboat Willie,(Opens in a new window) the animated cartoon that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. 

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Canadian citizens, meanwhile, are about to experience their own public-domain drought: Starting Friday, copyright terms will extend from the life of the creator plus 50 years to the same life-plus-70-years term as in the US. A provision of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement(Opens in a new window)—the revision of the NAFTA trade deal inked in 2019—requires Canada(Opens in a new window) to bring its copyright regime into alignment with that of the US. 

As in the US after 1998, this change is retroactive. A note(Opens in a new window) from the library at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, sums up the consequences: “This change means that very few works will enter the public domain in Canada in the next twenty years (2023-2042).”

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