Category Archives: Public Domain

The Public Domain and Scholarly Research: Alexandra Stern on Increased Access to the History of American Eugenics

Posted January 31, 2019
Head shot of Alexandra Stern

We are grateful to Alexandra Minna Stern for this contribution to our series of posts on the public domain. Stern is Professor and Chair of the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. She also holds appointments in the Departments of History, Women’s Studies, and Obstetrics and Gynecology. She directs the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab housed in the Department of American Culture. Her research focuses on the history of eugenics, genetics, society, and justice in the United States and Latin America.


The convergence of open digital access and large-scale text scanning projects makes 2019 Public Domain day a major event for scholars of American history and culture. Thanks to HathiTrust, more than 50,000 materials from 1923 including books, films, and musical scores are available for unrestricted use and distribution.

This is a boon for historians of science and society, particularly those of us interested in the history of that misguided science of genetic selection—eugenics—that played a role in justifying racial immigration quotas and the sterilization of the “unfit” in the early twentieth-century. The eugenics era is disturbing and fascinating on its own historical terms and deserves further scrutiny. It also can serve as an ideological antecedent for key facets of the rhetoric of white nationalism that has surfaced in recent years and was on display at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.

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Celebrating New Public Domain Works: Enchanted Bunnies

Posted January 29, 2019

Illustration of a child with bugle surrounded by a circle of bunnies.

Enchanted Bunnies (1923)

Among the treasures that entered the public domain on January 1, 2019 is The Tale of the Enchanted Bunnies, a 1923 children’s book by Ruth Sawyer. Described as “a story teller with consummate gifts whose tales both oral and written should be characterized as living folk-art,”[1] Sawyer was a prolific author who started the first storytelling program for children at the New York Public Library in 1910. Sawyer won the Newbery Medal for her 1936 children’s book Roller Skates and received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 1965 for her lifetime achievement in children’s literature.

Enchanted Bunnies follows Billy and Budge Bates as they break the spells placed on Lady Rabbit’s collection of silver, brass, china, alabaster, and crocheted bunnies, bringing them to life to share the events leading up to their enchantment. As Everett McNeil wrote in his October 14, 1923 review of Enchanted Bunnies in the New York Times, “children adore bunnies, even the make-believe ones… [t]his is why the little girls and boys who get Ruth Sawyer’s book, The Tale of the Enchanted Bunnies will themselves be enchanted.”[2]

Illustration of bunnies walking down path surrounded by trees.

Enchanted Bunnies (1923)

The opportunity to freely translate works to help fill the gap in stories available to children in their mother tongue is one reason to celebrate that the Enchanted Bunnies and other 1923 children’s book gems are now in the public domain. While English-speaking children have around 55,000 picture books available to them, there are only 2,000 in Portuguese and a mere 500 in Zulu.[3] Like many of her books, Enchanted Bunnies was inspired by the legends and folk tales that Sawyer gathered from various countries. Now that the book is in the public domain—more than 95 years after its initial publication—it is fitting that it is now free to be translated into any language for children around the world to enjoy.

[1] Chevalier, Tracy (ed.), Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers, St. James Press, 1989, p. 854.
[2] McNeil, Everett, What Became of the Pied Piper, New York Times, Oct. 14, 1923.
[3] For more details, see www.bookhunger.org.

Celebrating New Public Domain Works: “Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar”

Posted January 22, 2019

We thank Jordyn Ostroff for the following contribution to our blog series, which celebrates works from 1923 that entered the public domain on January 1, 2019. Jordyn is an attorney and a co-author of Understanding Rights Reversion.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
The World’s Work (1921)

One small gem that entered the public domain this year, and should not be overlooked, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar.” Of all his many short stories, this one—published in 1923 in Hearst’s International—perhaps most clearly foreshadows The Great Gatsby, which was published only a couple of years later.

In the story, a young man from the South arrives in New Jersey with his body servant, in a car that routinely falls apart. When he goes to borrow a hammer from an old mansion nearby, he encounters a young woman and promises to make her a New York society girl. After his plan to drive his old clunker as a taxi in New York fails, he comes up with something more brilliant: the dice, brass knuckles, and guitar academy, open three afternoons a week to all the young debutantes of Southampton. There, James Powell, J.M. (“Jazz Master”) teaches young men and women to defend themselves with “Powell’s defense brassknuckles, débutante’s size,” to play the guitar, and to win a buck at dice.

All of the themes that make The Great Gatsby an American icon are at play: the class divide, racial tension, southern versus northern etiquette, and of course, a rollicking jazz party in the background. There’s even a family in Southampton called the Katzbys, a wink at Fitzgerald’s future work, and an O. Henry-style plot twist or two, which I won’t give away here.

Now that the story is in the public domain, high school students can now more easily access this precursor to the novel many of them are likely already reading in class. Through it, they might catch a glimpse of a great American author using the short story form to figure out his future themes and plots. That said, the story is not without flaws. Like many works of its time, “Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar” contains offensive racial stereotypes and language. As such, it also provides an occasion for students to grapple with the ugly side of the Jazz Age social scene that Fitzgerald wrote about so memorably, and to better understand his work in the historical context of the 1920s.

Celebrating New Public Domain Works: Audiobooks on Librivox

Posted January 16, 2019
A selection of works that entered the public domain on January 1, 2019
(courtesy of the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain)

This Copyright Week, as we welcome works from 1923 into the public domain, it’s exciting to consider the possibilities for re-using and adapting them to reach new audiences. Once works are free from copyright restrictions, they can be remade, shared, and added to the commons for all to enjoy. One noteworthy resource that is mining these public domain riches is Librivox, a free and volunteer-powered collection of audiobooks, whose mission is nothing less than “acoustical liberation of books in the public domain.”

All books in the Librivox collection are completely free, and accessing them is easy; there’s no app download, sign-in, or subscription required, and works can be listened to online or downloaded. Books are read and quality-checked by volunteers, and the audio files are hosted by the Internet Archive.

There are already some works from 1923 on the site (note that some recordings are complete, while others are still in progress):

  • Tarzan and the Golden Lion, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (in progress)
  • A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
  • Excerpts from Selected Poems by Robert Frost (recordings of the complete collection and Frost’s other 1923 book, New Hampshire, are currently in progress)
  • The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (in progress)
  • Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

Librivox features many other works from authors who were active in the early 1920’s, inlcuding P.G. Wodehouse, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, and many more. Volunteers can sign up to read books, proof recordings, and suggest new works for the collection. We look forward to hearing more—literally!—as books continue to enter the public domain each January 1. Next year, works first published in 1924—including A Passage to India by E.M. Forster and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann—will be freely available to adapt into new formats for readers and listeners to enjoy.

Celebrating New Public Domain Works: Safety Last!

Posted January 8, 2019

We thank Robert Kirk Walker for the following contribution to our blog series, which celebrates works from 1923 that entered the public domain on January 1, 2019. Rob is a Supervising Attorney at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley, School of Law.

Image of Harold Lloyd clinging to hands of a clock on side of building.
Harold Lloyd in the famous clock scene from Safety Last!

Do you like movies full of sly visual jokes, death-defying stunts, and ooey-gooey romance? Then, boy oh boy, do I have a film for you! Safety Last! is a romantic comedy starring Harold Lloyd, one of the most popular and influential film comedians of the silent era. Rivaling the best works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the film includes stunning chase sequences, daredevil physical feats, and one of the most enduring images in all of movie history: a man hanging from the hands of a clock above a busy city street.

In the film, Lloyd plays a quick-witted striver who moves to the big city so that he can “make good” and earn enough to marry his hometown sweetheart. He gets a job at a downtown department store, and hijinks quickly ensue, involving the store’s snooty floor manager, mobs of sharp-elbowed customers, and an over-zealous policeman known simply as “The Law.” Following lucky coincidences and near catastrophes, Lloyd eventually wins the day—and, of course, the girl—after executing a series of still-impressive stunts along the side of a 12-story building.

With its emphasis on visual spectacle, its maudlin rags-to-riches story, and its overall celebration of plucky derring-do, Safety Last! is a near-perfect example of silent-era Hollywood. Unfortunately, this means that, like other works from the period, the film also includes a number of ugly racial, ethnic, and sexual stereotypes, included for cheap laughs. As such, the film is a superb example of both the artistic wealth and moral poverty of early cinema.

Celebrating New Public Domain Works: The Murder on the Links

Posted January 3, 2019
Cover of the 1923 U.S. edition

We thank Allison Davenport for the following contribution to our blog series, which celebrates works from 1923 that entered the public domain on January 1, 2019. Allison is a fellow at the Wikimedia Foundation (and a former legal research assistant at Authors Alliance).

Of the many works which entered the public domain on January 1st, I am personally most excited about Agatha Christie’s novel The Murder on the Links. The Murder on the Links is Christie’s third novel and the second novel featuring her eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The novel, which revolves around Poirot and his confidant Hastings solving a complicated double murder plot in the north of France, was described in reviews at the time as “notably ingenious.”* Like many of her novels, it exemplifies the conventions of British detective fiction, with a sharp-but-unusual detective, sensitive narrator, and stunning denouement that leaves readers reeling.

As a young, voracious reader, Agatha Christie was my constant companion through many a summer vacation. Agatha Christie’s characters inspired me to be curious, to think outside the box, and to seek adventure. For me, the works of Agatha Christie entering the public domain presents an opportunity for an entire new generation of young girls to be introduced to her works, maybe even in new forms. The “Queen of Crime” has already had her works translated into 44 languages, and adapted into countless movies, radio plays, and even graphic novels. To me, however, the intricate plots, exotic locales, and well-developed characters that inhabit Christie’s novels seem best suited to adaptation in an interactive form like a video game.

Studies show that 83% of teen girls between 13 and 17 play video games, and the primary motivations for women who play games are completion (i.e., finishing everything a game has to offer) and fantasy. Games which incorporate the detailed settings and plots of Christie’s novels would be ideal to encourage and inspire young female gamers. Getting girls into video games is not just about entertainment. Studies show that when young girls play games, they develop confidence with technological hobbies and are more likely to enter STEM careers. Agatha Christie was a pioneer in a genre which had previously been dominated by male voices, and as her works become freely available to adapt in new ways, I am excited to see how she inspires new generations of women to do the same.


*New York Times Book Review, 25 March 1923 (p. 14)

Authors Alliance Celebrates Public Domain Day 2019

Posted January 1, 2019

Photo of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock face in the silent film Safety Last

It’s about time! Harold Lloyd’s 1923 silent comedy “Safety Last!” enters the public domain today.

We at Authors Alliance are excited to join with other organizations and authors to celebrate Public Domain Day on January 1, 2019. For the first time in 20 years, works will be added to the public domain in the United States. The eligible works date from 1923, which means it has taken nearly a century for their copyright terms to expire, keeping many of them out of reach long beyond their creators’ lifetimes, and for decades after their commercial potential was exhausted.

Two resources stand out as excellent starting points for delving into this trove of newly available films, songs, and literary works. The Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain has provided a list of 1923 works entering the public domain today, complete with historical background and legal context. Meanwhile, John Mark Ockerbloom at the University of Pennsylvania compiled an outstanding Public Domain Day Advent Calendar for the month of December 2018, which highlights one 1923 work per day in an entertaining blog post. As an example, this post from December 14 not only provides some history about copyright law (and why it took a very long 95 years for these works to enter the public domain), but also discusses why the complete series of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ popular serial Tarzan and the Golden Lion had a cliffhanger ending— for 21 years!

While the addition of new works to the public domain is certainly worth celebrating, copyright terms are still overly long, and unfettered public access to works from the 1920s and beyond will occur only gradually. Authors Alliance board member Tom Leonard noted, “as we ring in 2019 with a great list of new additions to the public domain, historians are likely to see a borderland rather than a new frontier. We can now make full use of what Edith Wharton and Rudyard Kipling had to say about the War to End All Wars, but the darker stories of Ernest Hemingway and Erich Maria Remarque can’t be used so freely. 1923 is the first year in which radio takes hold in the American home, but we can’t easily look ahead to see how music and storytelling changed, because the rest of the decade is trickier to see with copyright still prevailing for many post-1923 works. 1923 was also the year before America’s immigration crackdown on Europeans from the south and east of the continent, as well as the restrictions on Asians who wished to live in the United States. The impact of this remains clouded by copyright restrictions that will eventually be lifted, but oh-so-slowly.”

We’ll feature more new public domain content on our blog throughout January—stay tuned for more posts in our public domain series!