Literary aficionados and copyright buffs alike have something to celebrate as we welcome 2023: A new batch of literary works published in 1927 entered the public domain on January 1st, when the copyrights in those works expired. The public domain refers to the commons of creative expression that is not protected by copyright. When a work enters the public domain, anyone may do anything they want with that work, including activities that were formerly the “exclusive right” of the copyright holder like copying, sharing, translating, or adapting the work.
Some of the more recognizable books entering the public domain this year include:
- Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse
- William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes
- Agatha Christie’s The Big Four
- Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep
- Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York (the original 1927 publication)
- Franklin W. Dixon’s (a pseudonym) The Tower Treasure (the first Hardy Boys book)
Literary works can be a part of the public domain for reasons other than the expiration of copyright—such as when a work is created by the government—but copyright expiration is the major way that literary works become a part of the public domain. Copyright owners of works first published in the United States in 1927 needed to renew that work’s copyright in order to extend the original 28-year copyright term. Initially, the renewal term also lasted for 28 years, but over time the renewal term was extended to give the copyright holder an additional 67 years of copyright protection, for a total term of 95 years. This means that works that were first published in the United States in 1927—provided they were published with a copyright notice, were properly registered, and had their copyright renewed—were protected through the end of 2022.
Once in the public domain, works can be made freely available online. Organizations that have digitized text of these books, like Internet Archive, Google Books, and HathiTrust, can now open up unrestricted access to the full text of these works. HathiTrust alone has opened up full access to more than 40,000 titles originally published in 1927. This increased access provides richer historical context for scholarly research and opportunities for students to supplement and deepen their understanding of assigned texts. And authors who care about the long-term availability of their works may also have reason to look forward to their works eventually entering the public domain: A 2013 study found that in most cases, public domain works are actually more available to readers than all but the most recently published works.
What’s more, public domain works can be adapted into new works of authorship, or “derivative works,” including by adapting printed books into audio books or by adapting classic books into interactive forms like video games. And the public domain provides opportunities to freely translate works to enrich our understanding of those works and help fill the gap in works available to readers in their native language.