Art entering the Public Domain is always a highly anticipated annual event. Artists, creators, and consumers mark a wealth of creative treasures that become available for public use by a frenzy on social media. This year’s celebration is particularly memorable, as it marks the liberation of iconic works such as Mickey Mouse’s debut in’ Steamboat Willie,’ André Breton’s literary masterpiece, and a little-known cityscape by Georgia O’Keeffe, all of which are now free from the constraints of copyright.
The intricacies of copyright expiration, as outlined by The Public Domain Review-Journal, vary across borders. While some nations grant public domain access 50 or 70 years after the artist’s death, the United States, with its 95-year copyright term, ensures a meticulous preservation of intellectual property. As 2023 unfolded into 2024, a myriad of creative works shed their copyright shackles, entering the public domain and opening up new possibilities for artists and the public alike.
In the United States, home to the world’s lengthiest and most intricate copyright periods, paintings and books created between 1924 and 1978 are generally safeguarded for 95 years from publication. Consequently, works from 1928, including contributions from artistic luminaries like Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and M.C. Escher, are now open to public engagement.
Notable creations from this epoch include René Magritte’s “The Empty Mask,”(see above) M.C. Escher’s “Tower of Babel,” and several ink drawings by Henri Matisse. Literary gems such as André Breton’s “Nadja,” Wanda Gág’s “Millions of Cats,” and Karl Blossfeldt’s photographic opus “Urformen der Kunst” have also transcended into the public domain.
However, the global panorama of copyright laws diverges, with Europe, South America, and Canada adhering to 70 years after the creator’s demise, Spain following an 80-year rule, and several continents embracing a 50-year protection period. Consequently, the works entering the public domain in the United States may have already shed their copyright confines worldwide, while some remain protected in the U.S.
Artistic luminaries like Cubist/Dada painter Francis Picabia and French-British illustrator Edmund Dulac, who passed away in 1953, saw their works join the public domain in countries following the 70-year rule.
Meanwhile, the entire oeuvre of Picasso, who died in 1973, is now free from copyright in regions adopting the 50-year post-death protection period.
A watershed moment in 2024 is the inclusion of Walt Disney Studios’s inaugural characters, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, depicted in animated shorts like “Steamboat Willie” and “Plane Crazy.” However, the public is restricted to utilising the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey to avoid infringing on Disney trademarks, which are in constant litigation.
Jennifer Jenkins, Director of the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University, noted the unparalleled anticipation surrounding Mickey Mouse’s entry into the public domain, surpassing even the enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes and Winnie the Pooh. As characters like Tigger also step into the public domain, Jenkins highlights Disney’s shift from lobbying for the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” to becoming adept at building upon the public domain.
Barely a day since the 1928 iteration of Mickey Mouse embraced freedom, an untitled slasher film reimagining Steamboat Willie has already been announced, showcasing the immediate impact of these cultural milestones. In countries worldwide, some works of Picabia and Picasso now resonate freely within the public domain’s embrace.
Top Photo: Edward Hopper Nighthawks (1942). Oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm (33.1 x 60.0 in). Art Institute of Chicago. This work is in the public domain not because it was published in the United States 95 years ago. Although there may or may not have been a copyright notice, the copyright was not renewed.