1925’s “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald entered the realm of free-use in the public domain after its copyright expired with the beginning of 2021. January 1, 2021—known as Public Domain Day—took numerous classic works from 1925 from under the safety of copyright to the open into the public domain.
In addition to Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby,” other novels joining come from Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolfe, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, and more. Music entering public domain comes from Duke Ellington and others. Comedic 1925 silent films also join the bunch, according to NPR.
“Gatsby” and these other works entered public domain this year because their copyrights expired in 2021.
“Gatsby” and these other works entered public domain this year because their copyrights expired in 2021. Originally, in 1790 copyrights lasted 14 years with one 14-year renewal; before 1978, the term was 28 years with one 28-year renewal, according to Duke Law. With the 1976 Copyright Act, which went into effect in 1978, adjusted the term to 50 years after the date of the author’s death. Come 1998, though, this changed yet again to what the United States still uses today. The term was increased to 70 years following the author’s death, or 95 years after the work’s publication date for corporate authors.
The copyright term was increased to 70 years following the author’s death, or 95 years after the work’s publication date for corporate authors.
“The Great Gatsby,” along with many other 1925 works entering public domain now, were signed on for a 95-year copyright. When a work enters public domain it means it is now available for free use, reinterpretation, and more. This means individuals are free to create new work based off the previously copyrighted material, such as novels like sequels or prequals, musicals, plays, and movies, according to NPR. Examples already in the public include “10 Things I Hate About You,” based on Shakespear’s “Taming of the Shrew.” Other classic novels that entered public domain that have inspired movie and play reeditions include “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Scarlett Letter,” among numerous others.
NPR wrote that by having works like “Gatsby” in public domain, it benefits the public in various ways, as it makes them more available to the public through either cheaper or free means. It also allows archivists to preserve the works, such as old film, NPR reported, as they said it “is a way to keep it circulating in the culture for artists and historians to use for education and inspiration.” According to Duke Law, while work from 1925 may be legally available, it may not all be actually available due to that some may either be lost or physically disintegrating—such as film or recordings. Duke Law discussed that many works whose copyrights were lengthened the additional 20 years in 1998 did not benefit from it, as most copyright holders were no longer financially benefitting. Even so, the reason they received the extension was due to the works’ “enduring popularity.”
With these 1925 works now in public domain, Duke Law wrote that the majority of these works have been out of circulation previously, so now anyone can “discover, enjoy, and breathe new life into them.” Not only that, but they describe that the public domain “also enables access to cultural materials that might otherwise be lost to history.”
Under Sony v. Universal (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court described copyright as “intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors by the provision of special reward, and to allow the public access to the products of their genius after the limited period of exclusive control has expired,” according to Duke Law. Comparing adaptations of “The Great Gatsby” before its copyright expiration and after, in Baz Luhrmann’s film rendition starting Leonardo DiCaprio they had to license the book, though now in 2021 no license is needed to create a movie, novel, play, etc. of or based on Fitzgerald’s novel.
One such possibility now is writing a “Gatsby”-based novel from the point of view of another character, which Michael Farris Smith did when writing “Nick.” Smith’s novel tells the story of Nick Carroway before he meets Gatsby, written as a sort of prequel to “The Great Gatsby.” “Nick” was released just following the New Year in January 2021 and is only the year’s first example of how 1925’s works can be reimagined.