Alfred Hitchcock’s first hit film, a Sherlock Holmes collection, songs by Louis Armstrong and thousands of other classics published in 1927 are now released from copyright and free for everyone to adapt and enjoy.

Every January 1, U.S. copyright law, which protects both the livelihoods of creators and the use of future generations, releases a trove of stories, songs and films for public use.

The 2023 release of works published in 1927 also includes the first Hardy Boys  mystery, the Virginia Woolf novel To the Lighthouse, Fritz Lang’s influential science-fiction film Metropolis and the song “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream.”

Films spanning Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies are also entering the public domain, according to Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

While the release of songs include Broadway hits and jazz standards, Jenkins notes that only the music and lyrics of 1923 compositions are free for use, while the recordings themselves enter the public domain next year.

Free use of art and literature after a set period of time is a core tenet of U.S. copyright law, which seeks to balance the right of creators to seek compensation for their work with the preservation of cultural artifacts for future generations to use and enjoy.

Based in the U.S. Constitution, copyright is a form of intellectual property law that protects original works of authorship including poems, novels, songs, architecture and even computer software. Other forms of intellectual property law include patents and trademarks that protect inventions, and the symbols or slogans used in advertising.

The two main aspects of copyright — a period of exclusive rights, followed by subsequent freedom of use — both provide incentives to creators in different ways. While a copyright is in effect, authors can reap payment for their work.

The Authors Guild, a union representing novelists, poets, historians and journalists, says, “Effective copyright protection is the linchpin of professional authorship; it enables authors to make a living writing.”

But releasing literature from copyright increases the availability of old songs and stories and allows their use in new creations. Prominent literary critic Northrop Frye has said, “Poetry can only be made out of other poems, novels out of other novels.”

As Jenkins puts it: “The public domain is also a wellspring for creativity. The whole point of copyright is to promote creativity, and the public domain plays a central role in doing so.”

Banner image: The Alfred Hitchcock thriller "The Lodger" and a collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries highlight the list of classics entering the public domain in 2023. (Movie posters © Getty Images)

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