A New Treasure Trove: 2021 and the Public Domain

Since 2019, new books and movies published 95 years ago have entered the public domain at the beginning of each year. January 1, 2021, will be a particularly important time for the expansion of the public domain, as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby will be freed to the public for the first time! There are many other works from 1925 that will go public domain this year as well, ranging from the silent film epic Ben-Hur to T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” Come take a voyage with us through a sea of newly minted public domain works arriving in 2021!

America’s Literary Heritage: Public Domain in 2021

The most anticipated book from this year’s public domain wave is The Great Gatsby, a staple of high school and college literature classes for decades. Gatsby has persisted so long in the public eye that some people are surprised it isn’t public domain already, and, in countries with “life plus 70” copyright, it already is, as Fitzgerald died in 1940. Starting on January 1, 2021, the United States will join the EU, UK, and most other countries where citizens can publish sequels, prequels, and remakes of Gatsby without having to consult or pay the Fitzgerald estate. Expect a slew of Gatsby-related works to be published throughout the 2020s as its copyright ends and generations of authors inspired by Fitzgerald’s novel can finally utilize it in their own distinctive styles and works.

Gatsby is not the only memorable text going public domain in 2021. Fans of mystery novels have several classic books to look forward to, including Earl Derr Biggers’ first Charlie Chan novel, The House Without a Key; Edgar Wallace’s The Blue Hand; and Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys. Some entries in classic children’s series will go public domain as well, most notably Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle’s Zoo and Ruth Plumly Thompson’s The Lost King of Oz. Several important works of literary fiction from 1925 will be opened to the public, ranging from Ernest Hemingway’s short story collection In Our Time to W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith. These and many other titles are coming soon to enrich America’s literary life.

The End of the Silent Age: Films of 1925

2021 will also see films released in 1925 become public domain. These are all silent films—and a major part of Hollywood’s technical and artistic evolution. Sadly, many of these films are now considered lost and can never be seen by current or future generations. The nitrate stock that silent-era films were stored on degraded rapidly, and, in many cases, the studios saw no reason to preserve their movies and simply junked the prints. Those lucky films that managed to survive the ravages of time and the apathy of the studios will provide a wealth of educational value and entertainment to film students and movie buffs in 2021. 

1925 was very far into the silent era; the first “talkies” would be released in 1928 and rapidly take over the market in 1929. The silent films of 1925 represent the era at its artistic peak, when Hollywood could produce great silent spectacles and before sound film had begun to consume Hollywood’s attention, money, and stars. Perhaps the most memorable silent film released in 1925 was MGM’s silent version of Ben-Hur, which featured an amazing chariot race that would be the pinnacle of Hollywood spectacle for years. Comedy was also well-represented in 1925, with Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman and Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances and Go West providing great stunt-work and laughs. Other notable films from 1925 include the Lon Chaney drama The Unholy Three and the World War I film The Big Parade. In addition to the films listed above, some silent films have been in the public domain for years because the studios forgot to renew their copyright. These include Lon Chaney’s The Phantom Of The Opera, an early silent version of Wizard of Oz, and The Lost World, the first feature-length film to employ stop-motion dinosaurs.      

A Song from the Past: Public Domain Music

Many written songs and scores (but not actual recordings!) will go public domain in 2021. Some of the most acclaimed include Irving Berlin’s “Always;” “Manhattan,” by Lorenz Hart & Richard Rodgers; and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard, and Kenneth Casey. In addition, songwriter Tom Lehrer has voluntarily released all his sheet music and lyrics into the public domain. Although a wealth of sheet music and lyrics will enter the public domain this year, no recorded music from 1925 will. The Music Modernization Act has streamlined the copyrights on older musical recordings but did not synchronize music dates with other copyrights. Pre-1923 music recordings will become public domain in 2022, and recordings from 1925 will go public in 2026.

A Guide to Public Domain’s Future in the 2020s

There are several important milestone years in the 2020s that will unlock culturally and historically significant works into the public domain. 2024 will be a particularly important year, as it will see the release of America’s earliest sound films, including Disney’s first Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie and the Western In Old Arizona. 2027 will see both Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies and the earliest of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strips leave their copyrights behind. And 2029 will close out the 2020s with classic sci-fi novels, such as H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, Wylie and Balmer’s When Worlds Collide, and the legendary monster film King Kong all going public domain.

The decades after the 2020s will see the earliest works of some of the 20th century’s most popular characters freed to the public. Early Batman and Superman comics; the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz; and the novels The Grapes of Wrath, Animal Farm, and The Hobbit will all go public domain in the 2030s. Allowing these and more titles to enter the public domain increases availability and decreases costs, providing easier access to works for libraries and users alike. You can look forward to the beginning of each year to see which new worlds await.