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Public Domain Day 2024 list: 12+ books, movies and songs entering the public domain


Jan. 1, 2024 is Public Domain Day in the United States — the day a bunch of artwork from the past evolves into its final form: public property. Art that’s out of copyright exists for all of us to sequel-ize, rewrite, subvert, slice to pieces, and otherwise treat as our rightful inheritance. And yes, creators, you can make use of the latest public domain properties to make money. 

Think of it this way: in the bygone days of the public domain, entities like Walt Disney Studios took advantage of more favorable copyright terms to adapt relatively recent stories into blockbusters without paying royalties. For instance, when Disney made Pinocchio, the original story was public domain at the time, but it had been published roughly as far into the past of that time as the album Rubber Soul by The Beatles is to our past today. 

So it’s ironic that Disney itself lobbied fervently to shape the present American laws ensuring that art is locked away from the public for decades longer than it once was. Today’s newest public domain works are from 95 years ago — making the stories, images, words, and sounds within these newly unleashed media properties feel that much more buried in the haze of time. 

Nonetheless, Copyright Day 2024 will unlock many works that feel fresh, vital, and culturally relevant. A couple notable releases will even raid the Disney Vault and pry away the company’s IP crown jewels. Here’s the best of what we, the public, will now own:

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse as depicted in Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie

If you’re reading this after Jan. 1, 2024, the day has arrived: Mickey and Minnie belong to you — at least, that is, as long as we’re only talking about the cartoon mice depicted in the rudimentary films Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. And as long as you’re not using Mickey and Minnie as a trademark, which is a totally different thing from a copyright (Basically, don’t open a restaurant called “Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Burger” and you should be okay).

In the public domain (as of 2024) short films Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy, Mickey and Minnie were non-speaking, black-and-white characters who lacked gloves and didn’t have a dog named Pluto. In both cartoons, Mickey was kind of a jerk. So nota bene: if you want to tell your very own Mouse tales, you should probably watch the originals carefully, and take pains not to base your new artwork on films that aren’t yet public domain. Mickey in his Sorcerer’s Apprentice garb from 1940’s Fantasia, for instance, still belongs to Mickey’s corporate overlords for the time being. Also missing from Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy are Mickey’s red pants, his bashful demeanor, and his chirpy voice, all of which he wouldn’t acquire until years later, so you might want to steer clear of those attributes. 

It’s worth noting, though, that past legal precedent calls into question the idea that just a splash of color or a sunny disposition are copyrightable add-ons to a publicly-owned character, so maybe some red pants might be okay (Did I mention this article is not legal advice?).

Tigger as depicted in The House at Pooh Corner

One of the film world’s oddities in 2023 was Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, a British horror film that is, by all accounts, not really worth watching. Its notability stems from the fact that it only seems to exist because the original book Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne had just entered the public domain, freeing up the title character to be used as the villain in what I suppose one could call a public-domain-sploitation film. 

One character who wasn’t in Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey was Tigger because the lovable, bouncy stuffed tiger hadn’t yet been dislodged from copyright. With The House at Pooh Corner entering the public domain, Tigger, who makes his debut in that book’s pages, will now be free to hack and slash alongside his pal Pooh. Yay?

The humor of The Marx Brothers as seen in Animal Crackers

There aren’t a lot of public domain movies out there that you could plausibly remake and get guaranteed laughs. But you can now cheat by simply mining the book from the Broadway show Animal Crackers, which was later adapted into the still-copyrighted film classic of the same name. The public domain can’t yet claim the Marx Brothers’ brilliant performances, but the book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind contains some still hilarious one-liners like “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” 

W.E.B. DuBois’s Dark Princess 

When digging around in the public domain for something to build upon, you might not expect to find an experimental and surprisingly erotic novel about race-consciousness around the world, both in society and in the depths of the human heart. And that’s what makes Dark Princess by sociologist, historian, and author W.E.B. Du Bois such an exciting find. The book, a combination of romance and political fiction, explores themes of race, class, and colorism in a global context — especially in the U.S. and India. So here’s a public domain work that offers a surprisingly fresh perspective on race relations, and you can feel free to adapt it into a film, set it to music, or, I don’t know, paint the words of the book on canvas. 

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Orlando, like Dark Princess, is a way-ahead-of-its-time literary masterpiece of the sort one might not expect to already be in the public domain. Orlando is a satirical faux-biography of an immortal being who changes genders and lives through several centuries. So if you’re hoping to adapt a story about a gender-nonconforming hero who travels through time, no need to wait almost a century for The Flash to hit the public domain; Orlando is already available. 

Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats

Millions of Cats is a bit of a miracle for parents: a beautifully illustrated, funny, totally digestible picture book that holds kids’ attention for a good ten minutes. Somehow, this masterpiece is regarded as perhaps the first American picture book — the literary format that dominates books for the pre-K market to this day. Now its words, not to mention its brilliant illustrations, are yours to adapt as you see fit. If you have a hard time coping with the twist ending where (spoiler alert) most of the cats get jealous and eat each other, you can publish your own censored version. Have all the cats wander off to play with a ball of yarn or something. But of course, that would blunt the darkly comic thrill of the original.

Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman 

If you’re a fan of the 2014 movie Nightcrawler, and you’re looking to recreate its story, tough luck; that one probably won’t be in the public domain within your lifetime under the current legal regime. Fortunately, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman has, well, the same story: a down-on-his-luck guy in the big city buys a camera and involves himself in the ugly business of gathering often-violent news footage as a freelancer. Then he stirs up a rivalry with a guy who’s been in the business longer, and, of course, uses his footage to try and impress a woman.

Laurel and Hardy’s first team-up, Should Married Men Go Home?

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy can already be found in the public domain elsewhere, but never before as the comic duo Laurel and Hardy. They kicked things off with a bang, too, with a short film directed by directed by Leo McCarey and James Parrott that escalates from an awkward living room scene at its intro, to an epic, sexually charged mud-wrestling climax. As you might expect, it turns out that, yes, married men should probably go home.

Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train

Want to adapt an Agatha Christie murder mystery that takes place on a train and features Christie’s legendary detective Hercule Poirot as its hero? Well unfortunately, Murder on the Orient Express is still locked up in the copyright safe. But there’s good news, too: The Mystery of the Blue Train is yours for the taking as of 2024.

‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ by Herbert Stothart and Harry Ruby

No, the scene from 1959’s Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe singing “I Wanna Be Loved by You” is not yet in the public domain, but the sheet music for the song itself now is (as of 2024). The scene itself is so legendary that no one can hear the song without thinking of the scene, and of Marilyn. So do whatever you want with the song, and let its connotations bleed into your work. The fact that it never fails to evoke the cultural memory of some still-copyrighted art isn’t the song’s fault!

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

If you’re looking for a shortcut to critical acclaim, you could do a lot worse than adapting the classic World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front. It was made into a film in 1930, and then again 92 years later in 2022. Both times, the resulting film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (the first one actually won it). 

Want to make your own adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front and take home Oscar gold? Go nuts! It’s in the public domain as of 2024. But be careful: only the German version is free to use, so brush up on your German, and make sure you’re not adapting dialogue from a still-in-copyright translated version of the novel. 

‘Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)’ by Cole Porter.

If ever a song lent itself to endless user-created verses, “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” by Cole Porter was that song. It’s just a list of things that “do it”:

Birds do it, bees do it

Even educated fleas do it

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

The original lyrics of the song aren’t even accurate:

Romantic sponges, they say, do it

Oysters down in oyster bay do it

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

Talk about a forgiving canvas; sponges reproduce asexually for crying out loud!  

What would you like to sing about being able to “do it”? Trucks? Electricians? Gnomes? From now until the end of time, we’re free to pair off whatever people, places, or things we want — and we can do so in the inimitable songwriting voice of Cole Porter. Bless you, public domain.

…and more!

For good measure, here are the other major works entering the public domain (from an even more comprehensive list helpfully compiled by Duke University’s Jennifer Jenkins):

Literature:

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) by Bertolt Brecht

Home to Harlem by Claude McKay

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

West-Running Brook by Robert Frost 

Film:

The Circus, directed by Charlie Chaplin

The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

The Man Who Laughs, directed by Paul Leni

Lights of New York, directed by Bryan Foy

Speedy, directed by Ted Wilde (and starring Harold Lloyd)

The Last Command, directed by Josef von Sternberg (Academy Award winner for best actor)

Street Angel, directed by Frank Borzage (Academy Award winner for best actress)

Songs:

“Mack the Knife” (in German) by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

“When You’re Smiling” by Mark Fisher, Joe Goodwin, and Larry Shay

“Makin’ Whoopee!” by Gus Khan and Walter Donaldson

“Pick Pocket Blues” by Bessie Smith





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