What Is Public Domain Anyway?

Find out if any of your favorite titles are going out of copyright this year.

Copyright runs out on some very well-known titles in 2024. . . .

Each year, news stories appear heralding certain works of art that have entered the public domain (PD). They do so on Public Domain Day on January 1. This is a major milestone for creative people, but most of the public remains ignorant of what this means. To get a clearer understanding, let’s break down copyright, public domain, and—most fun—see what will enter it on January 1, 2024.

What Is Public Domain?

You cannot understand public domain without also understanding the concept of copyright. The latter is a legal concept designed to protect the rights of a creator of a work of art from having their works used without their permission and ensure they get remuneration when they do give their permission, with certain exclusions such as using it for educational purposes.

The works are considered the intellectual property of the creator, and these include all kinds of creative endeavors, such as writings of all sorts, movies, illustrations, music, plays, and other art pieces. However, art is also a public good; therefore, it should be available for free after a certain time.

Once copyright protection has passed, people can use it without restriction to create sequels or prequels, recut it, or add it to a soundtrack without paying a fee. When a work has reached the end of copyright protections, it is said to enter the public domain. Each country has its own laws regarding copyright, so do your research to ensure you don’t get in trouble. The current laws in the United States are:

  • Any work created after January 1, 1928, is granted protection for the lifetime of the creator and seventy years after their death.
  • For works created under conditions called Other Authorship, the term is ninety-five years after the first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever comes first. The items included under this are works whose authorship is anonymous, pseudonymous, or work for hire. Movies fit the last condition as everyone in a film is a contract worker.

Music has an additional wrinkle as there can be two different copyright dates. The first is for when the piece of music was composed. The second covers a particular individual recording of a song. For example, the song “Hound Dog” was written in 1952, but the most famous version of it by Elvis Presley was released in 1956, giving it two separate dates that the song will come into PD. Given how often some songs get redone, it’s important to pay attention to these dates.

The Biggest Additions to Public Domain in 2024

  • Every year, there is one work that garners the lion’s share of attention (Last year, it was The Great Gatsby). The one that will make the biggest splash next year is the very first version of Mickey Mouse, seen in the animated short "Steamboat Willie.” This is the ONLY version of Mickey that will be available. Later versions, from, say, the movie Fantasia, remain under copyright protection. Still, this is a major deal.
  • Another mainstream character that is, in their oldest version, entering PD is Tigger from the Winnie the Pooh universe. He first made his appearance in A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, which becomes available this year.
  • Many artists have a big oeuvre where they have some books in the PD and others that still have copyright protection. This year, Agatha Christie, one of the most prolific authors from the last century, again loses the copyright for her novel The Mystery of the Blue Train. Ironically, it’s also her least favorite book.
  • Other writers with a long list of published materials entering the public domain this year include Virginia Woolf (Orlando: A Biography), D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), romance writer Georgette Heyer (The Masqueraders), satirist Aldous Huxley (Point Counter Point), and mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club).

Public domain is a specific legal designation for works that have reached the end of their copyright protections. Once lifted, artists are going to start sharing their versions of these classic works. Being able to copy or reimagine older works is a tried-and-true way for artists to start figuring out their own voice or style. Getting to make those visions public is another rite of passage. Let’s see what Steamboat Willie or Hercule Poirot becomes in the hands of those beyond their original creator’s.

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