‘Metropolis,’ Sherlock Holmes Among Works Entering the Public Domain – Rolling Stone


Fritz Lang’s trailblazing sci-fi epic Metropolis, the final Sherlock Holmes stories (and the detective character himself), and musical compositions like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “My Blue Heaven” are entering the public domain today, Jan. 1.

According to the Public Domain Day site, most works copyrighted in 1927 had their rights expire, as U.S. copyright law only remains intact for 95 years. Alfred Hitchcock’s early thriller The Lodger, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, musical compositions (but not the actual recorded songs) by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers, and novels by authors like Ernest Hemingway (Men Without Women), Agatha Christie, William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse) are also among the works entering the public domain.

A year after Winnie-the-Pooh entered the public domain — and a year before the sure-to-be-contentious expiration of the Mickey and Minnie Mouse copyright in 2024 — Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective Sherlock Holmes is officially and fully free to use as a character in new novels and films as the 95-year copyright on the Doyle’s final Holmes books has expired.

As noted by the Public Domain Day site, the Doyle estate had long argued (both verbally and legally) that they were the right holders of the Holmes character, requiring authors and film producers to license the character and threatening legal action against inspired-by works like Netflix’s Enola Holmes

However, as the final Holmes story enters the public domain, so does any potential legal claims the Doyle estate has over the character, with any author now legally allowed to pen their own Holmes novel, and any film studio free to adapt any of Doyle’s Holmes stories (or create new ones).

However, like in the case of Disney’s version of Winnie-the-Pooh, those variations on a preexisting character have their own 95-year copyright protection, even as the original version’s rights expire; for example, while Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, the big screen version played by Robert Downey Jr. is still protected for another seven decades or so.  

1927 marked a significant year in the traditional period that saw silent film give way to “talkies,” and such some of the most groundbreaking silent films of the era — like Lang’s prescient Metropolis, Murnau’s Sunrise, William Wellman’s Wings (the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture) and more — have entered the public domain, as has The Jazz Singer, one of the first films ever to feature synchronized sound.

“As is often the case, the story of Metropolis has a copyright wrinkle,” Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, wrote on the Public Domain Day site.

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The Complete Metropolis [released in 2010 with then-newly unearthed footage] has its own copyright but, as reflected in its copyright registration, this copyright only covers newly added ‘English Intertitles’ (title cards). The pre-existing silent footage and original intertitles from 1927 are out of copyright. And this is actually the second time that Metropolis has gone into the US public domain. The first was in 1955, when its initial 28-year term expired and the rights holders did not renew the copyright. Then in 1996 a new law restored the copyrights in qualifying foreign works. Metropolis, along with thousands of other works, was pulled out of the public domain, and now reenters it after the expiration of the 95-year term, with the once missing scenes available for anyone to reuse.”

Other notable works entering the public domain are the musical compositions for “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “(I Scream You Scream, We All Scream for) Ice Cream,” novels like Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (in its original German) and Marcel Proust’s final volume in his epic In Search of Lost Time (in its original French) and recent official government works, like the NASA images of space taken by the James Webb telescope.

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