Opening the Public Domain Treasure Chest

Charlie Chaplin, The Pilgrim

January 1, 2019 brought a special present, the gift of an expanded public domain.  At midnight on New Year’s Eve, all works first published in the United States in 1923 entered the public domain. It has been 21 years since the last mass expiration of copyright in the U.S.  Movies, songs, and books created in the United States in 1923 are now eligible for anyone to adapt, repurpose, or distribute as they please.

The public domain is our shared cultural heritage, a near limitless trove of creativity that’s been reused, remixed, and reimagined over centuries to create new works of art and science. Generally, works come into the public domain when their copyright term expires. But U.S. copyright law has greatly expanded over time, so that now many works don’t enter the public domain for a hundred years or more. Ever since the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, no published works have entered the public domain—but for the first time in 20 years, tens of thousands of books, films, visual art, sheet music, and plays published in 1923 will be free of intellectual property restrictions, and anyone can use them for any purpose at all.

When Disney successfully lobbied Congress to extend copyright by 20 years in 1998, it stopped the clock on the public domain. 20 years ago, everything from 1922 became public. The next year, and the year after, and every year until 2019, nothing else entered the public domain.

Just think, any record label can now issue a dubstep version of the 1923 hit “Yes! We Have No Bananas!” Attribution to others’ works is still required of course…

For more information about copyright and using images and text in your research and creative works, contact Karen Schmidt, University Librarian and University Copyright Officer,,

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