Of Mice and Music: Public Domain Day 2024

Bakewell School Playground, Toledo, Ohio, 1936. Courtesy of Toledo Lucas County Public Library. Via Ohio Memory.

Happy Public Domain Day! Under U.S. copyright law, books published in 1928, films released in 1928, and sound recordings published in 1923 will enter the public domain in the United States on January 1, 2024, when they can be freely performed, adapted, and otherwise used without a license.

The most prominent figure to enter the public domain in January is Mickey Mouse. He made his first public appearance in the 1928 film Steamboat Willie, which was also the first animated cartoon with synchronized sound. Walt Disney himself voiced Mickey, and the film’s runaway success saved Disney’s struggling company and launched a new era of animated storytelling. Although Mickey Mouse has evolved over the years, only the version released in 1928 will enter the public domain in January; later versions are still protected by copyright.

Tigger, who made his first appearance in A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, will also join the public domain in January. (Later versions of Tigger will still fall under copyright protection.) Millions of Cats, written and illustrated by Wanda Gág, was one of the first picture books to display a single image across two facing pages (called a double-page spread). The book won a Newbery Honor and has never been out of print since its 1928 debut.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish Photograph, circa 1915-1925. Courtesy of Massillon Museum. Via Ohio Memory.

Adult books joining the public domain include Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, Orlando by Virginia Woolf, Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh’s debut novel), and works by Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley, Upton Sinclair, and onetime Ohio resident W. E. B. Du Bois. Mystery and suspense titles include works by Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Leslie Charteris, whose novel Meet the Tiger introduced the world to genteel thief Simon Templar/The Saint. Poetry entering the public domain includes works by Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Butler Yeats, and the first collection of poems by W. H. Auden.

By 1928 Hollywood knew that talkies were the wave of the future, but studios still produced some memorable silents that are poised to enter the public domain. The Last Command, a silent film about a Russian aristocrat in exile, earned Emil Jannings the first ever Oscar for best actor. The Wind was Lillian Gish’s last silent film; however, her talent and popularity helped her transition smoothly from silents to talkies and later to television. The Circus, featuring Charlie Chaplin, endured two years of filming before its release in 1928. The Circus was one of the highest-grossing silent films of all time—and was also Chaplin’s last completely silent film.

Administration of a public library. Courtesy of the State Library of Ohio. Via Ohio Memory.

Notable music compositions entering the public domain include “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin and “Bolero,” Maurice Ravel’s best-known work. Several other famous composers and lyricists will join Gershwin and Ravel, including Irving Berlin, Noël Coward, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Ira Gershwin, Benny Goodman, Oscar Hammerstein II, Al Jolson, Glenn Miller, and Richard Rodgers.

You may remember from our Public Domain Day 2022 blog post that sound recordings are governed by different copyright law than print compositions, and that decades of pre-1923 sound recordings entered the public domain on January 1, 2022. No recordings entered the public domain this year, but sound recordings published in 1923 will enter the public domain on January 1, 2024. These recordings include multiple versions of “Yes! We Have No Bananas” (three of which made Billboard’s Top 25 that year) and first recordings by jazz and blues legends including Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith.

Finally, we’re sharing a 1928 publication from the State Library of Ohio’s collection: Administration of a Public Library by Arthur E. Bostwick. This sixteen-page booklet describes public library governance and staff duties near the end of the Roaring Twenties.

Happy Public Domain Day!

Thank you to Stephanie Michaels, Research and Catalog Services Librarian at the State Library of Ohio, for this week’s post!

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