I’m starting my countdown today to Public Domain Day, when a year’s worth of copyrights in many countries expires on January 1. In the US, we’ll be getting works that were copyrighted in 1927, and whose copyrights were consistently maintained since then. I’ll be featuring 60 works, or sets of works, one per day in the days to come. You’re welcome to read and join in.
In recent years, the primary venue for my countdown has been Twitter. Recent events, though, make me less confident in the future of that site as a useful and enjoyable social media platform. When it comes down to it, I’m not all that optimistic about any large-scale discussion forum that’s controlled by the whims of one rich guy. So this year, I’m trying out a new primary venue that’s not subject to any one person or organization. I’ve dusted off an account I created a while back on mastodon.social, and will be posting my countdown first there. They’ll be readable not just on that site, but on any other site that exchanges messages with it using the ActivityPub protocol. That’s a large array of sites, collectively known as the “Fediverse” (for the way that sites federate with each other to do that message exchange), or as “Mastodon” (which, strictly speaking, refers to the open source software used by many, but not all, of those sites). On any federated site you can read and respond to my posts by following or searching the #PublicDomainDayCountdown hashtag (linked here via the mastodon.social website, which can be slow at times). Or follow my personal account, though that will also show you posts I make on other topics, and might not show posts others make using the hashtag.
You can join whatever Fediverse site you like, or join multiple ones. If you later want to move to another Fediverse site that you like better, you can take your follows with you and leave a forwarding address. (I might do that myself after I finish the countdown from my current site.) If you’d like to learn more, Ruth Kitchin Tillman, who co-administers one of those sites, has a useful introductory guide, written especially with library folks in mind. Newcomers, or those who would like refreshers, might also find the documentation on fedi.tips useful. You can also find a large directory of sites to consider, as well as various apps for using them if you don’t want to just use their websites, at joinmastodon.org.
I do plan to continue posting the countdown on Twitter as well, though it might appear in more abbreviated form there due to the smaller character limits for posts, and might appear later than it does in the Fediverse. (Or possibly earlier in some cases; I’m not quite sure myself how long it typically takes posts to propagate through the Fediverse.) And, as usual, I’ll also post and periodically update my countdown here on this site, where the only controlling whims are my own.
Reformatted for my blog, here is my countdown for 2023:
November 2: “Wait a minute- you ain’t heard nothing yet!” said Al Jolson onscreen in 1927, and the movies would never be the same again. Arun Starkey on The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie” feature film, joining the public domain in 60 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 3: The Hardy Boys was the first multi-generation breakout hit series from the Stratemeyer fiction factory. Leslie McFarlane, its original ghostwriter, writes about taking the job. His first 3 mysteries join the public domain in 59 days.
Many of us read syndicate-revised versions with updated settings and less overt racism, but arguably less interesting prose. In the public domain, we’re all free to both read the originals & adapt them as we like. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 4: “An almost mythic tale of a life simply lived in the American southwest” is how the Literary Ladies Guide describes Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, joining the public domain in 58 days. More on the book at the University of Nebraska’s Willa Cather site. You can find bibliographic information and scholarly articles there now; I look forward to them adding full text, as they have for earlier Cather novels. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 5: “I ask you very confidentially…”
Jack Yellen wrote the music, and Milton Ager wrote the lyrics, inspired by his daughter (a toddler at the time, later a regular on 60 Minutes).
“…Ain’t She Sweet?”
Published in 1927, it’s been covered by scores of artists, including the Beatles and the Muppets. I’ll sing it to my sweetie when I go out with her this weekend. It’ll be in the public domain in 57 days, and probably in your head right now. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 6: Sherlock Holmes fans have reason to rejoice in 8 weeks. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last two Holmes stories, and The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, join the US public domain then. Not only does this free the complete Holmes canon, but it also frees adapters from worry that Doyle’s estate might shake them down for payment or approval based on claims of copying aspects of Holmes allegedly only in the late stories. (See e.g. this story.) #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 7: “Who do you think can hold God’s people / When the Lord God himself has said, / Let my people go?”
God’s Trombones consists of James Weldon Johnson’s poetic distillations of sermon themes and preaching styles he often heard in African American churches. It’s notable for Aaron Douglas’s art and design as well as Johnson’s poetry, as the Norman Rockwell Museum shows: https://rockwellcenter.org/essays-illustration/gods-trombones-judgment-day/
God’s Trombones goes into the public domain in 55 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 8: “There are those who foresee the decline of partisan politics in this country,” wrote Dartmouth professor Harold R. Bruce in 1927, “but such people deceive themselves…” His textbook American Parties and Politics, which includes this quote, went through multiple editions. If you’re in the US, you can vote today, and in 54 days when the book’s first edition joins the public domain, you can more easily read it and compare the states of US politics then and now. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 9: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is on multiple lists of best novels of the 20th century, though not all readers easily get into it. Kate Flint has an introduction, with accompanying content from the British Library, to this “carefully structured, psychologically complex novel that ultimately asks the reader to reflect on their own ever-changing experience of being in the world.” Woolf’s novel joins the US public domain in 53 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 10: Walter R. Brooks wrote over two dozen children’s books about Freddy the Pig and other remarkably intelligent animals living on the Bean Farm in upstate New York. The series ended in 1958, the year Brooks died, but it continues to have dedicated fans, some of whom run this website: http://freddythepig.com/
November 11: “For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights – from the sewer to the stars – the ladder of Courage.” That title card opens 7th Heaven, a 1927 film set in Paris on the verge of the first World War. Aubrey Solomon writes about it here for the Library of Congress.
This silent film, which earned three of the first-ever Academy Awards, joins the public domain in 51 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 12: Béla Bartók wanted the percussive effect of his first piano concerto magnified by placing the piano directly in front of the tympani and other percussion instruments. While it’s not staged that way here, pianist Yuja Wang and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra still bring out the energy that Bartók called for.
Bartók himself played the piano in the concerto’s premiere in Germany in 1927. It joins the public domain in the US in 50 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 13: Two memorable spinster detectives make their debuts in 1927. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death (published in the US as The Dawson Pedigree), Miss Climpson goes undercover in an English village to investigate a murder for Lord Peter Wimsey. And Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple begins a decades-long crime-solving career in “The Tuesday Night Club”, a story published in the December 1927 Royal Magazine. Both join the US public domain in 49 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 14: Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf focuses on a man getting through severe mental and spiritual crisis. While it had mixed reviews at its 1927 release, it gained new popularity in the social crises of the 1960s, though Hesse then called it “violently misunderstood”.
Hesse’s original German novel joins the US public domain in 48 days. Prior English translations may stay copyrighted, but public domain status should foster new translations, audiences, and understandings. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 15: Charles Lindbergh won instant celebrity with his 1927 transatlantic flight. His memoir We, published weeks later, soared to the top of bestseller lists.
His fame turned darker later. His first child was murdered, he fled back over the Atlantic to escape the press, and later returned to advocate white supremacy and tolerance of Nazi aggression as ‘America First’ spokesman. But when We came out, he was still flying high. It lands in the public domain in 47 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 16: Fiction can be copyrighted, but facts are public domain. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight inspired not just his own We, but hundreds of works by others. Among the first to take off was “Lucky Lindy”. L. Wolfe Gilbert and Abel Baer wrote and released the song within days of Lindbergh’s landing. It in turn joins the public domain in 46 days.
The flight may have also inspired the name of the “Lindy Hop”. Both name and dance are public domain. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 17: African American poet Countee Cullen had a productive year in 1927. He published two collections of his own poetry, The Ballad of the Brown Girl and Copper Sun. He also edited Caroling Dusk, one of the major poetry anthologies of the Harlem Renaissance, featuring works by 38 Black poets. Danielle Sigler writes about the anthology for the Ransom Center Magazine.
November 18: “Like the seed, I would be able to die when the plant had developed, and I began to see that I had lived for its sake…”
Marcel Proust died on this day 100 years ago. Five years later, Le Temps Retrouvé, the final volume in his masterwork À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, was published. It reaches the US public domain in 44 days. The quote above, translated by Ian Patterson, is part of Proust’s summing up of his work. #PublicDomainDayCountdown #Bookstodon #Proust
November 19: Today I went #hiking through the Trailside Museums & Zoo in Bear Mountain, NY. It’s the only such exhibition I’ve seen designed for passing hikers. Founded in 1927, it features local wildlife, and was intended as a model for other outdoor education sites along the Appalachian Trail.
I wonder if it was inspired by Paul Griswold Howes, a nature writer who lived not far from there. His Backyard Exploration was published that year, and joins the public domain in 43 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 20: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
So begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel relating the lives of the victims of the disaster, and of a witness who thought he could show why God had them die. Wilder later said “In my novel I have left this question unanswered.” It joins the public domain in 6 weeks. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 21: Felix Frankfurter’s The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti is one of the few contemporary writings on their politically charged trial that’s not yet public domain. He published the book criticizing the proceedings as a Harvard law professor in 1927, months before Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. He renewed its copyright as a Supreme Court justice in 1954. It expires in 41 days, as does the copyright of another 1927 book he coauthored, The Business of the Supreme Court. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 22: In 1927, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was about as far in the past as John F. Kennedy’s is today. One of the former’s last surviving eyewitnesses, actor Joseph Hazelton, related what he saw to Campbell MacCulloch, in a story that ran in the February 1927 issue of Good Housekeeping. Allan Ellenberger has more.
Most 1927 magazines did not renew copyrights, but Hearst magazines like Good Housekeeping did. It joins the public domain in 40 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 23: “‘S Wonderful,
That you should care for me!”
“”S Wonderful” was written by George and Ira Gershwin for Smarty. Little of that musical got to Broadway, but the song’s had a long, wonderful history since then. Rachel Fernandes tells some of it for the Gershwin Initiative.
The song joins the public domain in 39 days. But if there’s someone you care for, you don’t need to wait to tell them. I still sing it with my sweetheart, and we think ‘s wonderful. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 24: William Hazlett Upson’s work experience (including a stint as a tractor mechanic) inspired his humorous short stories about Alexander Botts, salesman for the Earthworm Tractor Company. They ran in the Saturday Evening Post for nearly 50 years. Octane Press has more on the character and his creator.
The first Botts story, “I’m a Natural-Born Salesman”, joins the public domain in 38 days, along with the rest of the 1927 Saturday Evening Post. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 25: The BBC writes on Clara Bow as Hollywood’s original “‘It’ Girl”. She got that nickname starring in It, a 1927 silent film based on a story by Elinor Glyn, which defined ‘It’ as “that quality possessed by some people which draws all others with its magnetic life force”. Both the movie and Glyn’s story join the public domain in 37 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 26: In John Buchan’s Witch Wood, a young Presbyterian minister moves to a rural Scottish village in 1644. Soon he discovers sinister goings-on in the nearby forest, implicating outwardly pious and powerful members of his parish. The novel was Buchan’s favorite, and many critics felt similarly, though its extensive Scots dialogue may challenge American readers. Phil Wade reviewed it earlier this year. It joins the US public domain in 36 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 27: In the Toronto Review of Books, Craig MacBride calls the Jalna series “A Canadian Downton Abbey, minus the pomp”. Mazo de la Roche wrote 16 novels of this intergenerational drama, which made her career and were bestsellers in Canada and elsewhere for decades. They’ve been in the Canadian public domain since 2012. The first novel, Jalna, was originally serialized in the US, in the Atlantic, and joins the US public domain in 5 weeks. #PublicDomainDayCountdown #Bookstodon
November 28: One of the more unlikely scholarly publishing hits of 1927 was Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars. It’s about the Goliards, young European clergy who wrote irreverent Latin poetry such as collected in Carmina Burana. A contemporary critic called Waddell’s book “jazzing the Middle Ages”. Current readers might like an edition explaining its many allusions (as Harry Cochrane’s review implies.) The book joins the US public domain in 34 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
November 29: Barbara Newhall Follett’s The House Without Windows is about a little girl who runs away from home to live in nature. It was published in 1927 when the author was 12. Jackie Morris, illustrator of a new edition, writes about the book and its author.
It joins the public domain in 33 days. The 1954 copyright renewal record for the book is attributed to the author, 15 years after her last known sighting, walking out of her home. #PublicDomainDayCountdown #Bookstodon
November 30: Mark Frauenfelder writes today in Boing Boing on the imminent arrival of Fritz Lang’s iconic German science fiction film Metropolis in the public domain. As noted in Wikipedia, it’s had a long, complex history, with substantially different cuts released over time, a lapsed and then restored US copyright, and an increasingly appreciative critical reputation. The 1927 releases join the US public domain in 32 days. #PublicDomainDayCountdown
December 1: We’re now 1 month away from Public Domain Day 2023! One of the songs joining the public domain then is “The Best Things in Life Are Free”, written by BG DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson for the musical Good News. SecondHandSongs has details on that and over 100 more uses of the song.