When Florence Welch recently announced she was writing music and lyrics for an upcoming musical based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the Florence + the Machine singer told the BBC it was because “musicals were my first love, and I feel a deep connection to Fitzgerald’s broken romanticism.” But there may be another reason: On Jan. 1, all that broken romanticism first published in 1925 went into the public domain, meaning anybody can create a new version of Fitzgerald’s classic novel without permission or paying royalties.
Thus, even though Fitzgerald’s high-powered estate has licensed The Great Gatsby for big-budget movies starring Robert Redford, Leonardo DiCaprio and others over the years, the classic novel is now free, both to print or to create “derivative works” like musicals or movies. Same with other books, movies and shows that first came out in 1925, like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Franz Kafka’s The Trial (at least the German-language version), Buster Keaton’s movie Go West, the unusually timely silent comedy Lovers in Quarantine and songs like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Irving Berlin’s “Always.” Now nothing, including royalty payments, can stop Kendrick Lamar’s producers from sampling certain Jazz Age classics by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller or Sidney Bechet, or Ariana Grande from interpolating the melody from bandleader Fletcher Henderson’s “Screaming the Blues” or underrecognized pianist Sippie Wallace’s “Can Anybody Take Sweet Mama’s Place.”
Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain has been exulting about this development since New Year’s Day. “What a bumper crop!” Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor and the center’s director, told NPR.
Few of these works, perhaps aside from The Great Gatsby, are likely to make a financial killing anytime soon. In the old days, the term of copyright lasted 75 years, but Disney was among the “group of powerful corporate copyright holders” that lobbied Congress in 1998 for an extra 20 years. The resulting copyright act gave works that came out from 1923 to 1977 a total of 95 years of protection. Next year, expect Earnest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the original A.A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh, and Bing Crosby’s first recording, “I’ve Got the Girl,” to hit the public domain.
For now, other than the Florence-scored Great Gatsby musical, it’s unclear whether artists will take advantage of the newly available 1925 classics, or will instead wait till the next “crop” of copyrights hits the public domain. We do know about one other derivative work in production, however: Giraftari, an upcoming Hindi play based on The Trial, in Jaipur, India, and, who knows, maybe coming to a theater near you.