Public Domain Day 2023: Opening a treasure trove of art, science, and literature

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On 1 January every year, we join free knowledge enthusiasts around the world in celebrating Public Domain Day. Because copyright protection for creative works only lasts for a certain number of years before it lapses, we can open a treasure trove full of books, works of art, songs, and early films on each New Year’s Day. Year by year, we are watching an ever-expanding Public Domain of Free Knowledge, on which Wikipedia and its sister projects are built.

So what’s in store for Public Domain Day 2023? Well, it depends on where you live, because copyright law, especially the term of protection, has not yet been fully harmonized across the globe. In most countries, copyright lapses a certain number of years (usually 50 or 70) after the respective author’s death. The United States (still) form a notable exception to this rule, calculating copyright protection based on the year in which a work was first published.

Public Domain Day 2023 in countries applying the “life plus 70” rule

For the countries where copyright ends 70 years after an author’s death, Public Domain Day 2023 is marked by the works of an educator and those of an explorer:

Maria Montessori (1870–1952)
American school child doing writing exercises according to the Montessori method

The Montessori method, founded by Italian educator Maria Montessori, is considered a milestone in the history of education and is still used in child development today, especially in kindergartens and primary schools. Her 1909 book The Method of Scientific Pedagogy Applied to Education in Children’s Houses can now be published and explored in the digital library of free-content textual sources, Wikisource.

Swedish geographer Sven Hedin achieved fame through several expeditions to Central Asia. For example, he was the first European to travel to the source of the Indus river in the Transhimalaya. He later published his discoveries in numerous books, including an atlas of Central Asia, which as of today can be freely referenced in Wikipedia and its sister projects. Because of his support for National Socialism, however, Hedin’s legacy as an explorer remains a difficult one.

In the field of literature, the year 1952 remains a sad memory: In the so-called Night of the Murdered Poets, numerous Soviet Jews were executed in Moscow after mock trials for their association with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Among the victims were well-known intellectuals, including a number of Yiddish-language authors. Wikipedia activists can use today’s date as an opportunity to remember the victims of this anti-semitic crime against the Jewish population of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin.

Public Domain Day 2023 in the United States

The list of works entering the Public Domain in the United States today contains a number of milestones in the history of film: Fritz Lang’s epochal Metropolis; the first feature talkie The Jazz Singer; the first Academy Award for Best Picture winner Wings; as well as a number of early films by comedians Laurel and Hardy – they all are now no longer protected by copyright, which means that they are now free to be enjoyed – and re-used by today’s creative minds – both on Wikipedia and elsewhere, online and off.

As a final note, the works entering the Public Domain in the United States today also include the last two ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. In 2014, a U.S. Court of Appeals was tasked to answer the question of whether the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson can enjoy copyright protection in their own right, even though their first, classic whodunits had then already become free to share and re-use by anyone. The subject of this major legal dispute embodies the very spirit of Public Domain Day: After a certain period of time, all creative material must become a part of the public domain – and today’s artists are invited to make good use of these Creative Commons.

In this spirit, we are wishing everyone a very happy Public Domain Day 2023!

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