Anyone who’s always wanted to organize a screening of a Buster Keaton film, put out a new arrangement of the jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown,” or write a musical placing The Great Gatsby in the Instagram age now has the chance. As of January 1, 2021, books, songs and films created in 1925 are in the public domain, free for anyone to use without licensing or getting permission from a copyright holder.
“It’s a blockbuster list from 1925,” says Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke University Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, which publishes an annual list of some of the works whose copyrights expire each year. In the United States, copyright terms are set by Congress. The legislative history is long and convoluted (the Duke center has a helpful breakdown of the twists and turns over the years), but the latest act, passed in 1998, stated that most works would definitively enter the public domain 95 years after their creation. In many other countries, most works just go into the public domain 70 years after the death of their author.
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