Every year on January 1, a new set of works enters the public domain. These include books, films, music, audio recordings, photographs, etc. When this happens, these works become free for anyone to use, adapt, or share. Just as for centuries anyone has been able to publish, perform, adapt and use the complete works of Shakespeare in any way, now in 2021 we are free to use anything originally copyrighted in 1925, as outlined by Center for the Study of the Public Domain.
The really cool thing about 1925 is that it produced works that are still remembered and widely read today, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, or Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. Any creative fan of Gatsby or these others can now make their own film, play, graphic novel, sequel, prequel, board game, action figure, or video game based on the book, or just straight up publish their own edition of the original text. Considering that many of the most enduring works in English literature were based on something else (Shakespeare and Chaucer, for example, rarely if ever wrote any original stories), the creative possibilities of freely building off of existing works are endless and very exciting.
Also exciting is the fact that 1925 was well into the Silent Era of film, and included famous silent stars (and masters of elaborate and dangerous stunts) Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, with their films Go West and The Freshman now open to all. Public domain films are exciting not only because of their free access, but also because of the possibilities this opens for their preservation. Film stock degrades over time, is in some cases flammable, and often few original copies survive. A large percentage of films from the Silent Era are permanently lost. Giving the public the opportunity to freely share digital copies of these films means that everyone can now play a part in keeping them from disappearing forever.
So where can you find public domain works for yourself? In short, anywhere. A Google search of any of the works I’ve mentioned here will find you a free digital copy to read, download, or stream. If you want to explore public domain works in-depth, though, there are a few major online libraries. For books, there is none better than Project Gutenberg. Though they don’t have Gatsby yet, as of January 5, 2021, they have an incredible selection of practically every public domain author you could ever want. You name it: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Mary Shelley, their works are all available for free on your computer, phone, or tablet. You can even get really fun stuff like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, any number of nearly forgotten Jules Verne adventures, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes! And for film, as well as books and other media, there’s Internet Archive. Just a peek at their silent film collection shows a vast number of films starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, all free for you to stream, download, remix, and adapt to your liking. They also have audio recordings and images, including material from NASA, which, due to its being a publicly-funded institution, has always been fully public domain. As a caveat, not everything on Internet Archive is guaranteed to be public domain, but keep in mind that absolutely any book or film from before January 1, 1926 is completely unrestricted.
So have fun! Read, watch, download, share, adapt, preserve! Whether you knew it or not, these works are all part of your personal library now and forever, and that library is growing every year. Who knows what you’ll find, and what you might do? The possibilities are endless.