Sherlock and Silent Classics: The Public Domain in 2023

2023 is a milestone for entry of classic works into the public domain and sees many long-awaited works becoming fully available to the public for free. This year is special because ALL of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and novels are now in the public domain. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg of this year’s entries! Classic films from the very end of the silent era, acclaimed literary fiction, the first three Hardy Boys books, and beloved songs such as “The Best Things in Life are Free” have all gone into the public domain this year. Take a trip through the early 20th century and see all that the public domain has to offer for this year.

The End of Silent Cinema and the Dawn of Sound

1927, this year's entry point for works to be in the public domain, was the last great year for silent films in Hollywood, as they would begin to be rapidly replaced by “talkies” the following year. The very first Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Wings,, opens a new window was also one of the last of the silents. A story of WWI pilots, Wings, opens a new window was critically acclaimed for having the first realistic air combat sequences in film and would go on to inspire decades of movies featuring military aircraft, including 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick., opens a new window 1927 would also see the first sound picture, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer [1927], opens a new window. Although only a partial “talkie,” with recorded speech mostly occurring only in Jolson’s songs, the concept of listening to a performer sing would prove to be a huge financial draw for Hollywood. The story of a cantor in training who defies the traditions of his strict father to go perform popular music, The Jazz Singer would be the first Hollywood musical. Other landmark films from 1927 now in the public domain include the romance Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, opens a new window and Clara Bow’s star vehicle, It., opens a new window

Copyright is a bit more complicated for silent films from countries other than the United States. Alfred Hitchcock’s first film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, opens a new window, is now considered public domain in the U.S., but only in the form of an edition without a recorded score and without digital restoration. Fritz Lang’s all-time sci-fi classic Metropolis, one of the earliest film depictions of a robot, is also public domain in the U.S. with restrictions on which versions can be shown. Metropolis has been extensively restored and had “lost” scenes added back in with footage found since 1998, but the original German version and dialogue is still not public domain under German law. This means that the only editions of the film that are actually public domain in the U.S. are those with English intertitles issued prior to 1978, like this one,, opens a new window although CRRL can connect you with a streaming version. Editions of Metropolis, opens a new window that resemble the film as it was originally intended, with cleaner visuals and plot elements brought back into focus, will have to wait until 2046, when the film goes public domain in Germany.

A New Day on Baker Street: Holmes Goes Public Domain

The publication history of Sherlock Holmes dates back to 1887,, opens a new window and, since then, the great detective has become one of the most influential characters in literature. Often imitated and alluded to in other mystery stories, actual use of Holmes has been closely guarded by Conan Doyle’s estate for many decades after his death in 1930. Many Holmes stories had actually gone out of copyright before Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act, opens a new window in 1998, but the extension still protected stories in the last book Doyle published, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, opens a new window. Even though the U.K. copyright on the Holmes stories expired in 2001,, opens a new window the Conan Doyle Estate, opens a new window claimed ownership of the character based on its U.S. copyright on Case-Book and filed lawsuits against any author who used Holmes without their authorization.

One such target was Leslie Klinger, a lawyer and editor of the short story collection In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, opens a new window. Klinger and the Doyle estate fought a lengthy legal battle, opens a new window that ended with a court decision claiming that Klinger could publish his Holmes collection, since it did not reference plot developments or characterization from the Case-Book stories. This did not end the estate’s attempts to claim control over Holmes, as it would later file a lawsuit against Nancy Springer, author of the Enola Holmes, opens a new window books, and Netflix, who is televising a series, opens a new window based on Springer's books. This lawsuit claimed that Springer and Netflix were infringing on the Case-Book stories by presenting Holmes as a character who could express a wider range of emotions., opens a new window Although the lawsuit was dismissed without a court ruling, 2023 sees the U.S. copyright on Case-Book finally end, allowing any author to write the Sherlock Holmes stories they wish.

A number of other important books have gone public domain in 2023. Acclaimed classic novels now in the public domain include To the Lighthouse, opens a new window, by Virginia Woolf, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, opens a new window, by Thornton Wilder. The original versions of the first three Hardy Boys books, The Tower Treasure,, opens a new window The House on the Cliff,, opens a new window and The Secret of the Old Mill,, opens a new window are now public domain; versions of these stories published from 1959 onwards were substantially rewritten by authors other than Franklin W. Dixon and are still under copyright. Finally, the 1927 version Hammerstein and Kern’s classic musical Show Boat,, opens a new window a work crucial to the development of Broadway musicals into more serious works, is now part of the public domain. The book, opens a new window it was based on entered the public domain last year. Listeners can check out the audio CD, opens a new window from the 1951 MGM film, opens a new window at the library.

Songs for the Public

Along with Show Boat, many other musical compositions and songs are now entering the public domain. Some of the most famous songs now in the public domain are “The Best Things in Life are Free,”, opens a new window “Ice Cream,”, opens a new window and “He Loves and She Loves.”, opens a new window Songs originally registered under copyright in 1927 are now public domain. However, the classic original recordings of these songs are not public domain yet, because copyright of audio recordings is covered separately under the Music Modernization Act., opens a new window Sound recordings will start to go into the public domain again in 2025.