Winnie-the-Pooh, an Ernest Hemingway Classic and a Massive Library of Sound Recordings Will Enter the Public Domain on January 1

collage of movie and book covers
Numerous books, films and other works first published in 1926 enter the public domain on January 1. Center for the Study of the Public Domain

When writer Benjamin Hoff published the Tao of Pooh in 1982, using A.A. Mine’s famous stories of adventurous stuffed animals to illustrate the principles of Taoism, he agreed to pay the Milne estate a third of hardcover and 40 percent of paperback profits. As of the start of 2022, any other writer wishing to reuse some of the original Pooh stories would have no need to reach that kind of deal. Like many other works first published in 1926, the original Winnie-the-Pooh enters the U.S. public domain on January 1.

As Duke University Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain explains, copyrighted books, films and songs from that year, along with sound recordings from 1923 or earlier, become available to be shared, reused and remixed without permission or fee. That means that Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, silent movies starring Buster Keaton and Greta Garbo and poem collections by Langston Hughes and Dorothy Parker are available to anyone who wants to make them available to others or use them in their own original work.

While copyright laws in many countries allow works to go into the public domain 70 years after the death of their creator, in the U.S. a 1998 law states that most become public 95 years after their creation. The implementation of the law meant that there was a gap in works entering the public domain between 1998 and 2019. 

black-and-white photo of formally dressed Black men and women with Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes, shown signing autographs in 1957, published his first book of poetry in 1926. Washington Area Spark via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0

Since then, new books, films and written music have been trickling in each year, allowing for the creation of various versions of classics. For example, after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby entered the public domain last year, creators invented a graphic novel adaptation, a version of the story in which Gatsby is a vampire and another told from the perspective of the character Jordan Baker, reimagined as a wealthy Vietnamese-American woman, Alison Flood reported for the Guardian. Musicians have also reused a variety of compositions, including jazz and blues from the 1920s, in creative ways.

“These works will continue to be reimagined in unimagined ways across instrumental mediums or multimedia platforms,” James Gordon Williams, a musician and African American Studies scholar at Syracuse University, told Smithsonian magazine last year. “The world has changed so the music will be reframed in a way that tells the truth about our lives today.”

2022 also marks the first time early sound recordings will become available under a 2018 law called the Music Modernization Act. One portion of the law allows many recordings made before 1972 to be protected against unauthorized use for 95 years after their first publication. It also makes all recordings made before 1924 publicly available starting in 2022. Prior to the law’s passage, the first sound recordings wouldn’t have entered the public domain until 2047. 

The Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) notes that an estimated 400,000 recordings are entering the public domain, and it has gathered a list of notable examples. They include songs like “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds (1920), Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” as performed by Vess L. Ossman in 1907 and performances of the World War I anthem “Over There” by Nora Byes and Enrico Caruso. Also on the list are recordings of political speeches by suffragist Gertrude Foster Brown and African-American intellectual Booker T. Washington. 

Ernest Hemingway poses for a photograph in front of a tent
Ernest Hemingway’s first full-length novel, The Sun Also Rises, helped introduce the image of the cynical Lost Generation of the 1920s. UpNorth Memories – Don Harrison via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Here’s a sampling of works from 1926 entering the public domain in 2022:

Winnie-The-Pooh: Long before Pooh became a Disney star, he and his stuffed-animal compatriots first appeared in the words of A.A. Milne and the art of Ernest H. Shepard. Writing in the Guardian in 2016, Sarah Burnside noted that, while the stories are often seen as excessively sentimental, they contain some subtle humor suitable to both adults and children, such as the line “‘Pooh,’ said Rabbit kindly, ‘you haven’t any brain.” 

“Reading books as a small child, I learned that something might be said kindly but still be unkind; that anything said “carelessly” is probably anything but; that the people most proud of their intellect might just not be that clever,” Burnside wrote.

As Namera Tanjeem writes at Book Riot, there was also a “mild dark side” to Pooh’s story. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, the inspiration for Pooh’s human friend, ultimately ended up despising the work he inspired. His depiction in his father’s writing led to bullying at his public school.  “it seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with the empty fame of being his son,” he complained.

(Disney, however, still owns the copyright to the familiar color cartoon versions of Milne’s characters; the original text and illustrations, however, will be free for re-use.)

The Sun Also Rises: Ernest Hemingway’s novel, his first, depicted American and British expatriates living in Paris in the 1920s. His cynical, heavy-drinking characters helped define the Lost Generation who came of age during World War I. The book also introduced many readers to Hemingway’s signature sparse prose style, which his fellow writer Virginia Woolf described as creating an atmosphere that is “fine and sharp, like that of winter days when the boughs are bare against the sky.”

Enough Rope: Dorothy Parker’s first published book of poetry showcased the Jazz Age writer’s famous wit, collecting work she had published in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Life. Many of the poems skewered cliches about romantic love, as in one titled “Unfortunate Coincidence”:

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

The Weary Blues: Another debut poetry collection, this one by the great Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, collected work written to be performed with musical accompaniment at Harlem Clubs. Prize money from several awards that the collection won allowed Hughes to complete his college education. Among the most famous poems in the collection are “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Dream Variations,” and “Mother to Son,” which begins with the famous lines: 

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.

Battling Butler: One of Buster Keaton’s biggest hits at the time, the silent film about a wealthy, effete young man who ends up forced to train as a boxer showcased Keaton’s signature physical humor as well as his ability as a director and editor. At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website, Imogene Sara Smith writes that, despite his own rough-and-tumble upbringing and his early career in simple slapstick, in his solo star career in the 1920s, Keaton excelled at playing sheltered men forced to stretch their abilities in difficult situations. “Silver-spoon roles suited his innate elegance and restraint, the innocence and pure-hearted gallantry that he projected on screen,” she writes.

The Temptress: Starring Greta Garbo, the silent drama set in Paris and Argentina tells the story of a scandalous love triangle. When the film first came out, Mordaunt Hall wrote for the New York Times that Garbo “is not only remarkably well suited in the role, but with a minimum of gestures and an unusual restraint in her expressions, she makes every scene in which she appears a telling one.”

Don Juan: This movie was the first full-length sound film, with a recorded musical soundtrack that marked the introduction of the Vitaphone playback system. However, there was no recorded dialog. For that, audiences had to wait for The Jazz Singer, which premiered in 1927 and will enter the public domain in 2023.

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