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Thousands of U.S. copyrighted works from 1928 are entering the public domain


So that early version of Mickey Mouse is not alone in its release from the copyright cage. Jennifer Jenkins runs the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School, and every year, she writes about some of the original works that lose legal protection.

JENNIFER JENKINS: In 1928, we were in the midst of a transitional period for cinema. We were at the end of the silent film era, and at the time, talkies with synchronized sound were a technological marvel, including a film that apparently features singing cowboys.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I'm half crazy, all for the love of you.

JENKINS: It's called "In Old Arizona."

SCHMITZ: And it's worth noting here that old Arizona had only achieved statehood about 16 years before this Western was released.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) For two.

SCHMITZ: In literature, Jenkins points to three titles headed to the public domain with familiar themes.

JENKINS: You know, right now we're in the midst of cultural battles about the extent to which things like gender identity are, or should be, viewed as immutable. Looking back into history this year, at 1928, we find exactly the same concerns and debates and even the same attempts to ban or censor certain themes and certain points of view.

SCHMITZ: Such as a book that's inspired multiple film adaptations.

JENKINS: D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," which explores lust and class division and which was famously banned as obscene.

SCHMITZ: Another explores lesbian love. Radclyffe Hall's "The Well of Loneliness."

JENKINS: And one of my favorite books as an English major, Virginia Woolf's "Orlando," which features a fascinating character who experiences life as both a man and then a woman.

SCHMITZ: All over the course of 300 years of British literary history.

JENKINS: And Woolf writes, (reading) in every human being, a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.

And so here's an exploration of gender fluidity from almost a hundred years ago that is still very much relevant today.

SCHMITZ: Other works heading into the public domain today reflect a unique movement in U.S. history.

JENKINS: In 1928, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing,


JENKINS: And this year, we are celebrating works such as "Dark Princess" by W.E.B. Du Bois and "Home To Harlem" by Claude McKay.

SCHMITZ: Plus Louis Armstrong's "Beau Koo Jack."


SCHMITZ: While the Harlem Renaissance revealed Black excellence, Jenkins reminds us it was still a time of legally enforced segregation.

JENKINS: Many works from the era contain racial slurs, demeaning depictions, stereotypes. And at the time, Black artists were also subject to rampant exploitation. They were routinely excluded from copyrights' benefits and were denied both the recognition and compensation for their work that they deserved.

SCHMITZ: A complicated and fascinating time capsule, Public Domain Day 2024 is on the Duke Law School website.


SEGER ELLIS: (Singing) When you're smiling, when you're smiling, the whole... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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