Public Domain Day 2023 is Coming: Here’s What to Know

Public Domain 2023: On January 1, 2023, copyrighted books, movies and other creative works first published in 1927 enter the public domain in the United States.
On January 1, 2023, copyrighted creative works first published in 1927 enter the public domain in the United States. Are you ready?

A new crop of copyrighted works (including rights in a certain famous British detective) will enter the public domain in the United States on January 1, 2023. Here’s what it all means.

Last month, Hulu announced that the upcoming third season of its Hardy Boys reboot would be the series’ last. While it’s certainly not unusual for streamers to cancel shows after only a few seasons, it also just so happens that the first three novels introducing the teenage sleuths are about to enter the public domain.

The first three novels in The Hardy Boys series are going to enter the U.S. public domain on January 1, 2023. Spoiler alert: the secret of the old mill is that it’s a meth lab.

There’s no indication that Hulu’s decision was influenced by the copyright status of The Hardy Boys’ titular characters. But it’s also no secret that under the “cost-plus” model used by streaming services nowadays, the rates paid to producers, talent and rightsholders become more expensive the longer a series goes on. You’d forgive any business-minded licensee for thinking twice about paying escalating fees for the right to use source material that may only be copyrighted within an inch of its life.

Happy Public Domain Day 2023

On January 1, 2023, Frank and Joe Hardy will be in good company. That’s when a whole slew of popular books, stories and films first copyrighted in 1927 will enter the public domain in the United States. They include the Hermann Hesse novel Steppenwolf, Virginia Wolff’s To the Lighthouse, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, which features the final set of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (more on that one later).

Laurel and Hardy's "Putting Pants on Philip" (1927) marked the comedy duo's first "official" motion picture release
On January 1, 2023, Putting Pants on Philip enters the public domain. Not only does the film have one of the greatest titles in movie history, it features the first official motion picture appearance of comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

Also heading to the U.S. public domain on January 1 are the 1927 films The Lodger, which was Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller, and The Jazz Singer, the first full-length movie to feature synchronized dialogue. Unfortunately, that one is also a racist mess.

And let’s not forget the groundbreaking and highly influential Metropolis, which is actually about to make its second trip into the public domain. The copyright in the Fritz Lang motion picture first lapsed in 1953 after its owner didn’t renew the initial copyright registration. However, in 1996, the Uruguay Rounds Agreements Act resurrected the film’s copyright. The Act restored protection for Metropolis and other foreign works that were still protected by copyright in their source countries, but which had fallen into the U.S. public domain for failure to comply with the various formalities (e.g., notice, registration and renewal) formerly imposed under U.S. law.

Metropolis, a film everyone claims to have seen but fewer have ever watched, enters the U.S. public domain on January 1, 2023.

The public domain status of all of these works was further delayed by 1998’s Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which extended the term of copyright protection for subsisting copyrighted works by 20 years. Works copyrighted prior to 1978 had their terms extended from 75 years to 95 years from the date of publication.

Following a twenty-year hiatus that ended in 2019, a new crop of works has entered the U.S. public domain each year on January 1. In 2023, this will include all works first published in 1927. Note that works remain protected until the end of the calendar year. That’s why Disney’s Steamboat Willie won’t enter the public domain until January 1, 2024, even though the film is set to celebrate its 95th birthday in 2023.

IMPORTANT Public domain is country specific. Just because a work is in the public domain in the United States doesn’t mean it isn’t protected by copyright elsewhere—and vice versa. Check out the Copyright Myth Project for more.

A Matter of Character(s)

One of the most interesting issues involving older content involves characters that first appear in a public domain work but which then evolve or change over the course of later works that are still protected by copyright. For example, the version of Mickey Mouse featured in Steamboat Willie had black eyes, small ears, and a pointy nose. He also had a bad temper and the unfortunate habit of using barnyard animals as musical instruments.

I mean, sure, if you want to use “Mickey Mouse, Cat Abuser,” go ahead (in 2024).

Gradually, over time, Mickey’s eyes were enlarged (and pupils were added), his ears became more pronounced, and his nose was shortened. Following a visit from the ASPCA, he became devoted to animals. These later versions of Mickey will still be protected by copyright even after the character’s original iteration enters the public domain.

He may look like a rat, but he’s a good looking rat, no?

The principle that characters which evolve over time don’t enter the public domain all at once was established by the 2014 opinion in Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. The Klinger case arose because the Arthur Conan Doyle estate tried to claim that Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character would stay out of the public domain so long as any individual work depicting the character remained protected. But the Seventh Circuit rejected that view.

The entire original Sherlock Holmes canon—featuring the good, bad, and the downright pompous, thin-skinned and indolent detective—enters the U.S. public domain on January 1, 2023.

Instead, the court ruled that a copyrighted character begins to fall into the public domain when the first published story featuring that character enters the public domain. At this point, “story elements—including characters covered by the expired copyright—become fair game for follow-on authors.”

At the same time, those aspects of the character’s evolution that don’t appear until later works may still be eligible for copyright protection.

While later iterations of a character may be protected, you can’t bootstrap the copyright in a derivative work to extend protection on the original work. Because author Klinger was only looking to adapt the Holmes and Watson characters as they appeared in the stories that had lapsed into the public domain, he was free to do so.

Still, the fact that fully 98% of the Sherlock Holmes works are in the public domain hasn’t stopped the Doyle estate from taking the position that nearly anyone who wants to create a derivative work featuring the character needs to get a license. Among the licensed works touted on the Estate’s slickly-produced website are the long-running CBS series “Elementary,” the Will Ferrell comedy “Holmes and Watson” and two films starring Robert Downey, Jr. But come January 1, 2023, none of the stories in the original Sherlock Holmes canon will be protected by U.S. copyright.

Running Down the Clock

A still from Metropolis. Please don’t sue me until January 1, 2023, at which point I’ll vigorously defend said lawsuit.

Estates of famous authors have sometimes tried to enforce their rights in works up until the last minute. The estate of Harold Lloyd provides a good example of a copyright owner attempting to wring every last ounce of copyright protection from a work before the protection clock ran out. Perhaps to underscore the ticking time analogy, in 2014, Harold Lloyd Entertainment filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a clock that the plaintiff argued was a “direct appropriation of the iconic clock scene” from Lloyd’s 1923 film “Safety Last.” Harold Lloyd Entertainment filed several lawsuits alleging infringement as late as 2015—92 years after the film’s copyright was originally secured and just a few years before it was set to expire.

The wall clock on the right was the subject of a 2014 copyright lawsuit filed by Harold Lloyd Entertainment alleging infringement of the iconic clock scene from “Safety Last” (1923).

Interestingly, were it not for the passage of the CTEA in 1998 (or had the film been released just one year earlier), “Safety Last” would have been in the public domain at the time of the 2014 suit.  Instead, it was part of Public Domain Day’s Class of 2019, soon to be joined in January 2023 by another Harold Lloyd classic, “The Kid Brother.”

Harold Lloyd is the kid brother in The Kid Brother, which features a classic underdog narrative way before Underdog.

Extending Rights in Public Domain Works

There are a few recognized methods that publishers and other rightsholders use to retain market share even after a work has entered the public domain. “Special editions” tend to proliferate a year or two before a copyright is set to expire, filled with annotations, prefaces and essays that are still protected by copyright.

For example, Agatha Christie’s estate just authorized the first-ever Miss Marple Calendar as well as twelve new mysteries featuring the character. The estate’s announcement of these works coincides with the first Miss Marple story’s impending entry into the public domain.

Note that the early appearances of the Marple character are different than how she appears in later Agatha Christie books. That’s another reminder to make sure that if you use copyrighted characters featured in a public domain work, you shouldn’t take aspects of those characters that first appear in later works still protected by copyright.

The same is true of Winnie the Pooh. The first collection of Pooh stories entered the public domain in 2022, and Now We Are Six will follow in 2023. But Pooh didn’t appear wearing a red shirt until 1932, and Disney didn’t release its first theatrical short featuring the character until 1966. That version of Winnie the Pooh won’t enter the U.S. public domain until 2061.

The director of the upcoming Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey is also reportedly working on Peter Pan: Neverland Nightmare. No word yet on whether Disney will take any legal action against these films.

Another, more controversial approach involves using trademarks (which can be perpetual) in characters to extend protection in public domain works. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the precise question, although in 2003, Justice Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court in Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox, warned that allowing these types of restrictions on a public domain work could effectively create “a species of mutant copyright law” that would limit the public’s right to copy and use expired copyrights.

With the impending entry of the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse into the public domain in 2024, we may see the interplay between public domain copyrights and perpetual trademarks play out in court pretty soon.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on social media @copyrightlately. I’m now also on Mastodon at copyrightlately@mastodon.social. Meanwhile, here are some notable works that you can copy, distribute or adapt starting on January 1, 2023:

Notable Films Entering the Public Domain in 2023

Notable Books Entering the Public Domain in 2023

Notable Musical Compositions Entering the Public Domain in 2023

4 comments
  1. Aaron,
    Great blog. I imagine many hours go into it. I have two questions:

    Could Disney put its hundreds of artists on a project to produce Mickey stills in hundreds of thousands of poses and perspectives and backgrounds, register them as created in 2022-2023, get an additional 95 years on these specific stills, and threaten suit on these (after some program for insuring access by the public at large)?

    Better yet, could Disney dedicate an AI program to produce hundreds of millions of such stills?

    Best,

    1. Thanks Kelly,
      Yes, any new derivative works Disney creates will be protected for 95 years from publication, but the copyright in those works couldn’t be used to “resurrect” any aspects of the character that had already fallen into the public domain. However, as I explained in the article, given the extensive changes made in the Mickey character over the years, Disney will be protected for a long time to come.
      Using an AI program to create derivative works is risky, because its an open question as to whether those resulting images may be entitled to copyright protection.

  2. Thanks for the article. I do have another question. I have a dream of drawing children’s comic books and also loved reading the Hardy Boys when I was younger. Could I publish my own versions of these three original novels? (I say, “my own versions” because the original novels of the 20s were biased against minorities and I’d want to change that.) Or would they still be under some sort of trademark? If so, could I get around it by calling them just by their book titles and leaving off the words “Hardy Boys?” I’m a regular person not part of a publishing company so I don’t know how this works. Thank you!

    1. I’m unable to provide specific legal advice, but generally speaking, when the earliest iteration of a character enters the public domain, that particular version of the character may be used, along with any plots and stories that are also in the public domain. The public may create derivative versions of the public domain elements, including by changing those elements, so long as the changes don’t infringe later elements of the work that are still protected by copyright. Titles and character names can generally be used to truthfully identify a work so long as they aren’t used in a way that would suggest any sort of sponsorship or association with the original rightsholders.

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