13 Great Works of Art That Entered the Public Domain in 2023
It’s a brand new year, and that means a ton of art and entertainment has gone from privately owned to the property of everyone and no one. In the United States, books, films, songs, and other works published in 1927 are free to be shared, remade, re-mixed, and otherwise used without fear of legal repercussion, as are literary works from authors who died before 1952. Below are 12 works you can do whatever you want with in 2023. Kind of.
Because there’s still money to be made from older intellectual property, it’s a more complicated than the passage of time making everything public domain. Generally, artistic works become public domain when enough time has passed, but sometimes the fictional characters within them (or some aspects of those fictional characters) are still owned. It’s a mess.
Filmmakers have borrowed everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for nearly 100 years—the story, the special effects, the massive scope—but now you can use the whole damn movie however you like. So go ahead and re-shoot it, add funny voices and sound effects, or record your own score. There are no rules anymore.
The musical Puttin’ On the Ritz came out in 1930, so you’ll have to wait a few years to remake it for free, but if you want to record the title track, you’re in luck. Irving Berlin’s 1927 send-up of the hoi-polloi dressing as swells is still a banger, and now the rights are owned by everyone, including you. If only 1980s one-hit-wonder Taco had waited to record his synth-pop version version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” he wouldn’t have had to fork over any licensing fees or royalties to Berlin’s estate.
Among the first sound motion pictures, The Jazz Singer stars Al Jolson as a Jewish singer who disappoints his parents by performing jazz instead of becoming a cantor. A massive blockbuster upon its release in 1927, The Jazz Singer has been remade a couple of times (once with Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier), but now it can be remade without paying anyone royalties. (But maybe skip the blackface this time.)
H. Rider Haggard’s Allan and the Ice-Gods is the final Allan Quatermain novel. Published in 1927, it sees Quatermain taking the mysterious drug taduki and waking up among cavemen in the ice age. There’s a battle with a saber-toothed tiger, a fur-covered love interest named Laleela, war between caveman tribes, a glacier crushing everything, and much more, all within the framework of jazz-age spiritualism and past life regression. Quartermain was inspiration for Indiana Jones, but hasn’t been served well in the movies, so I suggest you take this story and make a huge budget motion picture out of it—you can have the rights for nothing.
When someone says they don’t like jazz music, I think, “That’s because you’ve never gotten high and listened to jazz music.” I assume Louis Armstrong, reportedly an ardent marijuana enjoyer, got high before he played the amazing solo on “Potato Head Blues.” Or not. I don’t know Louis Armstrong’s life. Anyway, feel free to re-mix this recording into a micro-tonal Neo-soul masterpiece. It’s free, and it’s what Louis Armstrong would have wanted.
I share Dorothy Parker’s view of author A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh. In a review of The House on Pooh Corner, Parker wrote that Milne’s verse was so cutesy she “fwowed up.” But a lot of people aren’t blackhearted cynics, and want to read poems with titles like “Pinkle Purr” and “The Knight Whose Armor Didn’t Squeak.” You’ll find those immortal poems and 33 more in this collection of children’s verse, which you can now publish yourself, plaster on bathroom walls, or use as lyrics in a micro-tonal Neo-soul masterpiece.
Alfred Hitchcock is usually associated with 1940s and 50s filmmaking, but his first feature was a silent film released way back in 1927. It tells the story of The Avenger, a serial killer stalking London and murdering blonde women, and the mysterious lodger who may or may not be him. (I can’t believe Hitchcock would make a movie about murdering blonde women.) Anyway, it’s a great movie you should check out. I’ll burn you a DVD; it’s totally legal.
Belphégor is a ripping yarn for francophiles. In it, a phantom seems to haunt the Louvre and the Paris catacombs. Only Chantecoq, the king of detectives and the master of disguises, can stop the evil mastermind behind the devious plot to steal the lost treasure of the Medicis. This piece of French pulp fiction has swashbuckling, skullduggery, daring escapes, mysterious religious sects, and more.
It’s hard to imagine anyone wrote this novelty ode to frozen confections—it seems like something made up by the first children at the beginning of time—but it was originally released in 1927 by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, and was penned by Howard Johnson (no relation to the Howard Johnson who opened ice cream parlors, by the way), Billy Moll, and Robert A. King. “I Scream” was a huge hit among the wax cylinder set and now you can share it legally on other obsolete technologies like Limewire, Napster, or BitTorrent.
Adventure movies used to be about 15th century French poets who have a problem with the monarchy instead of ex-CIA agents who play by their own rules. The beloved rogue of the title is François Villon, an aristocratic poet who is committed to bringing justice to the oppressed, feeding the hungry, and taking the king down a peg. He also falls in love and gets catapulted into a castle. Yeah, it’s been available on YouTube for at least 11 years already, but now it’s legal.
It’s not only works of fiction that are becoming public domain in 2023. Harold R. Bruce’s examination of the effects of political parties on public policy now belongs to everyone. Bruce’s point was that political parties are here to stay, and he sure was right. You know who’s jealous though? The ghosts of political science students from the late 1920s, who probably had to shell out 14 cents for a copy of this text book, used.
The first film to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award, Wings tells the epic story of a romantic triangle between a couple of World War I flying aces and the original screen siren Clara Bow. Wings was the Top Gun of its time. It was shot fewer than 30 years after the airplane was invented, and fewer than 10 years after World War I ended, but the aerial footage still holds up.
Originally performed in the musical Show Boat, this dirge contrasts the inexorable flow of the Mississippi River with the tribulations of slavery. It’s now in the public domain, so you won’t have to get the permission from the estates of Oscar Hammerstein or Jerome Kern if you want to record your own version. But you have to ask yourself if you really have the bass pipes to handle it. If you don’t, try “My Blue Heaven,” also newly public domain.