Copyright No More: 2021 Public Domain Works

Happy New Year!

Each year, January 1 is recognized as Public Domain Day and Copyright Law Day to raise awareness of the intellectual property rights of both authors and the public that enjoys their works. It also marks the day when thousands of U.S. copyrights expire.

The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (Pub. L. 105-298, 112 Stat. 2827) amended the Copyright Act of 1976 to set the duration of copyright protection for any work at 95 years, after which the work will enter the public domain and may be used freely by anyone to entertain, enlighten, or earn revenue.

As of January 1, 2021, copyrights for all works published in 1925 and before have ended. Other works that have shifted into the public domain are those published before 1964 whose registration was not renewed in their 28th year of protection.

Some Background on U.S. Copyright Law

For copyright protections to apply in the first place, a work must be original and in a fixed, tangible form – for example, a written story, a play, a painting, a sculpture, or a recording or composition of music. (See 17 U.S.C. § 102, and Title 17 – Copyrights of the U.S. Code more generally.) Individual states also have copyright laws, but they are only applicable in narrow areas not preempted by federal copyright law, often relating to criminal infringement and piracy. (See the U.S. Copyright Office compilation of state copyright laws.)

Some works are “born” in the public domain, without copyright protections from their creation onwards. Important examples are all laws published by the U.S. federal government, including statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions. State laws vary as to whether and to what degree works by their governments are copyrightable or in the public domain; Harvard University Library provides a good resource for these state guidelines.

Copyrights Expiring in January 2021

A helpful guide to works whose registered U.S. copyrights have expired (1870 to 1925) has been compiled by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, using digitized Catalog of Copyright Entries from the Library of Congress. Some of the notable works joining the public domain in 2021 are also highlighted in a new display at the W&L Law Library (pictured above), including:

Visual Arts