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Life Beyond Copyright: Exploring the Public Domain

For almost forty years, United Airlines had the privilege of using George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as its musical signature. However, in 2020, this jazzy classical masterpiece transitioned from the friendly skies to the public domain.

When a copyright expires, it signifies that the work becomes accessible for anyone to utilize and expand upon without the need for fees, licenses, or permissions. Jennifer Jenkins, the director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University Law School, emphasized this shift.

She highlighted that numerous renowned works, such as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus,” Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” as well as characters like Peter Pan, Dracula, and Frankenstein, now belong to the public. This ownership grants individuals the freedom to create new content without restrictions.

Jenkins clarified that the public domain does not mark the end of copyright but rather represents the latter phase of its life cycle. The idea of setting an expiration date on intellectual property was embedded in the U.S. Constitution by the founding fathers to advance science and the arts, leaving Congress to determine the duration of copyright terms.

She pointed out that if copyright extended indefinitely, creators would face challenges in producing works without the constant threat of copyright infringement lawsuits.

The release of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” into the public domain in 2021 opened the floodgates for a wave of Gatsby-inspired projects. Blake Hazard, Fitzgerald’s great-granddaughter and estate trustee, acknowledged the significance of the novel’s transition to the public domain, paving the way for various reinterpretations and adaptations.

Hazard expressed her optimism for the diverse range of projects emerging post-copyright, including novels like “Nick,” “Beautiful Little Fools,” and “The Chosen and the Beautiful,” each offering a unique perspective on the classic “Gatsby” narrative.

She shared her anticipation for a new post-copyright endeavor, a “Great Gatsby” musical premiering on Broadway, emphasizing the importance of maintaining some fidelity to the original work while adding fresh layers and perspectives.

The narrative further delved into the evolving landscape of public domain works, citing examples like “Steamboat Willie,” the debut of Mickey Mouse, entering the public domain. However, it cautioned against using modern iterations of copyrighted characters like Mickey and Minnie.

The discussion extended to the complexities faced by estates managing intellectual properties like Sherlock Holmes, with the Conan Doyle estate attempting to retain control even as copyrights expired. Notable scholars like Les Klinger have challenged such practices, emphasizing the significance of the public domain in fostering future creativity.

In conclusion, the text highlighted the ongoing evolution of copyright laws and the inevitable entry of iconic characters like Bugs Bunny, Superman, Batman, and even Luke Skywalker into the public domain, setting the stage for new creative possibilities in the future.