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More Works Of Art Enter The Public Domain On New Year's Day


Among other things, January 1 is Public Domain Day. That means copyrights expire on works from 95 years ago. So everybody is free to rewrite or remix or just play around with classic books and songs and more. NPR's Petra Mayer reports on what people have been doing with it all.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: So here's the thing with Public Domain Day. For 20 years, it didn't happen. In 1998, Congress passed a law extending current copyrights from 75 to 95 years. And that meant that until two years ago, nothing new was coming into the public domain. That all changed on January 1, 2019. Since then, a flood of popular culture from the 1920s has become available - early silent movies, pop songs, books like "The Prophet," "Mrs. Dalloway" and "The Great Gatsby." So what are people doing with all this good stuff, you know, like "Gatsby?"

MICHAEL FARRIS SMITH: I was captivated by Nick.

MAYER: That's author Michael Farris Smith. His new novel, "Nick," comes out this month, and it imagines a life and a back story for "Gatsby's" Nick Carraway. Smith says he was snagged by that moment at the end of the book where Nick suddenly realizes it's his 30th birthday.

SMITH: And then right after that, he describes it as anticipating a decade of loneliness. And that is what really stuck me. Like, when I read the decade of loneliness line, I remember I actually stopped there, and I set the book aside.

MAYER: Smith says he saw so many parallels between Nick's life and his own at that age that he decided to write Nick's story. Although, he says, he just assumed "Gatsby" was in the public domain when he started writing five years ago, he was a little taken aback when his publishers told him the book couldn't come out until 2021. But "Nick" is one of the few really high-profile works to surface from that flood of new public domain material. Jennifer Jenkins is the director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School. She says a lot of what's happening is on a smaller scale.

JENNIFER JENKINS: I've had emails from parents who say, hey, my high school kid's an amazing musician. And guess what? You know, now that "Rhapsody In Blue" is free, he's going to play it. He's going to reimagine it. And maybe we'll put it on YouTube.

MAYER: Some publishers have put out new editions of books like Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet," Jenkins says.

JENKINS: The works become more available and in more editions, and that itself feeds creativity. So we do absolutely know that happens.

MAYER: So why aren't there more "Nick"s out there? Glenn Fleishman is a journalist who's covered copyright issues.

GLENN FLEISHMAN: There are some very popular, weird copyright cases that involve lots of lawsuits, and I think it makes people worry.

MAYER: Fleishman has experienced some of that worry himself. He loves the classic song "Yes We Have No Bananas," which entered the public domain on January 1, 2019. So he organized some friends at a New Year's party to sing it. And they put the song up on YouTube moments after midnight on January 1.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Yes, we have no bananas.

MAYER: Months later, Fleishman got a peculiar message from YouTube - not a takedown but a notice that a publisher had claimed rights to the song.

FLEISHMAN: They really need their 15 cents from, you know, this 95-year-old song if it was still under copyright.

MAYER: Fleishman was able to point out the mistake to YouTube. But he says there's still a chilling effect. Even big players will sometimes pay a licensing fee for a public domain work rather than deal with confusion or legal hassles. So it may be a few more years before we see somebody rewriting "Mrs. Dalloway" or TikTok dueters trying Buster Keaton stunts. But, says Jennifer Jenkins, the door is open.

JENKINS: To borrow a line from "The Great Gatsby," we now will all have a green light to use one more year of our rich cultural past without permission or fee. And all of these works - they teach us about ourselves. We gain insights into places we've never been, people we'll never be, times we've never seen. And that in itself feeds creativity.

MAYER: Petra Mayer, NPR News.


Petra Mayer died on November 13, 2021. She has been remembered by friends and colleagues, including all of us at NPR. The Petra Mayer Memorial Fund for Internships has been created in her honor.