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Join Us as We Welcome New Works to the Public Domain on Public Domain Day!

January 30, 2020 , , , , ,

Today is Public Domain Day! Come celebrate with us from 5- 9 pm at American University Washington College of Law. View the program and register here. 2019 was the first year that works protected by the Copyright Extension Act—those created after 1923—entered the public domain. This year we are celebrating all the copyrighted works from 1924 that entered the public domain on January 1, 2020. 

What is the public domain and why does it matter? 

The public domain encompasses all creative and scientific works that belong to the community-at-large. Essentially, it is our collective cultural heritage and a critical source of inspiration for new creative works and scientific developments. 

The public domain also plays a critical role in our intellectual property system. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, known as the Intellectual Property or Copyright Clause, states that “Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times, to Authors and Inventors, the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  Not only does the public domain serve as the counterbalance to patent and copyright protections, it also fulfills the public purpose of our constitutionally guaranteed intellectual property rights—the promotion of the “progress of science and useful arts.” 

What is the current state of the Public Domain? 

As with most legal questions, what is and is not in the public domain is complicated. It depends in part on when a work was published. Before the 1976 Copyright Act, the public domain was the default realm of all creative works. If authors wanted copyright protection they had to seek it out, complying with formalities such as registration and notice. Now, copyright is given unconditionally to creative works, regardless of formalities. Although this change makes it easier for creatives to protect their works, it also makes it incredibly difficult to dedicate works to the public domain—an issue worth addressing when considering copyright reform.

Additionally, the switch from “public domain as default” to “copyright as default” only applies to works created after January 1, 1978, which often makes it difficult to tell whether or not a work is in the public domain. Works that were first published before 1978 will enter the public domain at varying times depending on several factors. But, the general rule of thumb is that as of 2020, copyrighted works from 1924 or earlier are now part of the public domain. By contrast, copyrighted works created after 1978 will enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the author. When the author is unknown or the work is made for hire, the work will enter the public domain 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is earliest. 

Ways to celebrate the Public Domain in 2020

  1. Create a Public Domain Cosplay: Turn your next comic-con adventure into a chance to celebrate the Public Domain. Mr. Peanut, Tarzan, Captain Marvel, Bo-Peep, and Alice in Wonderland are all characters in the public domain. Check out more inspiration here
  2. Perform Public Domain Karaoke. “It Had To Be You” and Gershwin’s musical “Lady Be Good” entered the public domain this year. Add these classics and more to your karaoke repertoire this year to surprise the local bar crowd with your vaudeville talent and classic musical theatre genius.
  3. Start a Public Domain Book Club. Not only will this give you a chance to tackle the classics you have been meaning to read, but your fellow book club members will thank you for the cheaper price point of public domain books. Here are some themed lists of public domain books. 
  4. Plan a Public Domain Sip & Paint. Always wanted to make art, but never sure what art to make? Spend a night recreating a public domain art work. Add some wine and invite some friends to make it a real celebration. For inspiration check out the National Gallery of Art’s open access database—it contains over 51,000 public domain artworks.


The public domain is a wonderful thing worth celebrating, so be sure to tag us
@publicknowledge on social media with your celebratory photos and videos!


About Kathleen Burke

Kathleen is spending her last semester of law school working as a full-time extern at Public Knowledge on a variety of tech law and policy issues. Kathleen Burke is a current 3L at Case Western Reserve University Law School. Last summer, she worked as a Google Policy Fellow at TechFreedom. Kathleen developed a passion for tech policy while working on a gigabit internet proposal in Lexington, KY. Prior to law school, she worked as the Director of Education and Outreach at Fayette Alliance, a land-use policy non-profit in Lexington, KY. She also ran her own wedding photography business. Kathleen is a member of the 3rd class of fellows at the Internet Law and Policy Foundry and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Law, Technology, and the Internet at Case Western Reserve University. She is in her final year of law school at Case Western Reserve University where she has received the CALI awards in Property and Copyright Law. She loves to hike with her dog and is an avid board game enthusiast.