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From 'The Great Gatsby' to Ma Rainey: 21 notable creative pieces headed to public domain in 2021

From 'The Great Gatsby' to Ma Rainey: 21 notable creative pieces headed to public domain in 2021

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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — New Year's Day isn't just the start of 2021, it's the first day that thousands upon thousands of pieces of artwork, music and literature from 1925 history enter the world of public domain.

If you're unfamiliar with public domain, it's a collection of materials that no longer have copyright or intellectual property rights that is now available for the public to expand on. All works — from songs to novels to inventions — eventually end up there for future generations to build on.

Duke University's Center for the Study of Public Domain explains it this way: You still have to buy a copy of Homer's "The Odyssey" but you don't have to jump through legal hoops to turn ideas from it into new, modern-day pieces, like when the Coen Brothers used it to create the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?" The most noticeable every-day examples of the public domain can be found in stores when purchasing generic medicines and products.

The public domain can also give art pieces a second life. "It's a Wonderful Life," for instance, entered the public domain in 1975 because it was a box office failure and the copyright owner opted to not extend the movie's copyright, the Center for the Study of Public Domain pointed out. Although its score and the short story it was based on were eventually kept in copyright, it became a holiday classic because it was available for TV stations to run for free and new audiences seemed to love it.

Under current U.S. law, all published materials have a shelf life of 95 years in the United States before it enters this portal and becomes available to the public. That wasn't always the case. For example, artwork lasted a maximum of 56 years up until 1978. That means noted creative pieces like "Mary Poppins," The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" and Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree" — all released in 1964 — could have been on this year's list.

Nevertheless, there are still some big names heading to the public domain. Here are 21 notable works heading into the public domain heading into 2021:


"An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser

  • Special note: Modern Library, founded in 1917, ranked this as the No. 16 best novel of all time.

"Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis

"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • Special note: This is likely the most notable work heading to the public domain Friday. Over 25 million copies of the American classic have been sold with annual sales of 500,000, according to Biblio. Modern Library rated it as the second-best novel of all time, while Time Magazine ranked it No. 5.

"The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance" by Alain Lock

  • Special note: This is a collection of works including writings from Countee Collen, W.E.B du Bois, Langston Hughes, and more.

"Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

"In Our Time" by Ernest Hemingway

  • Special note: This signals the beginning of a wave of Hemingway's cherished works heading to the public domain in the coming decades. Hemingway was 26 years old when a collection of short stories was published as "In Our Time." His first novel, "The Sun Also Rises," wouldn't be published until 1927. That novel will be added into the public domain two years from Friday.

"The Trial" by Franz Kafka


"Always" by Irving Berlin

A collection from Duke Ellington, including "Jig Walk" and "With You"

A collection from "Jelly Roll" Morton, including "Shreveport Stomps" and "Milenberg Joys"

"Looking for a Boy" by George and Ira Gershwin

  • Special note: From the musical "Tip-Toes"

A collection from Ma Rainey including "Army Camp Harmony Blues" and "Shave 'Em Dry"

"Manhattan" by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers

"Sweet Georgia Brown" by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard and Kenneth Casey

  • Special note: A 1949 version of this song is most commonly associated as the theme song for the Harlem Globetrotters.


"The Freshman" starring Harold Lloyd

"Go West" starring Buster Keaton

"Lovers in Quarantine" starring BeBe Daniels

  • Special note: This film is based on the 1924 play "Quarantine."

"The Merry Widow" starring John Gilbert, Mae Murray and Roy D'Arcy

"Pretty Ladies" starring ZaSu Pitts

"Stella Dallas" starring Ronald Colman and Belle Bennett

"The Unholy Three" starring Lon Chaney and Victor McLaglen

  • Special note: A remake of the film was released in 1930 as a "talkie."

The Center for the Study of Public Domain has a list with more creative pieces heading to the public domain; it can be found here.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.


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