The Sonic Society

Showcasing the very best in new Audio Drama

Public Domain Day 2022!

It’s our favourite day of the year. Public Domain Day.

Montage of 1926 Works

On January 1, 2022, copyrighted works from 1926 will enter the US public domain, 1  where they will be free for all to copy, share, and build upon. The line-up this year is stunning. It includes books such as A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Felix Salten’s Bambi, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues, and Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope. There are scores of silent films—including titles featuring Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Greta Garbo, famous Broadway songs, and well-known jazz standards. But that’s not all. In 2022 we get a bonus: an estimated 400,000 sound recordings from before 1923 2  will be entering the public domain too!

In 2022, the public domain will welcome a lot of “firsts”: the first Winnie-the-Pooh book from A. A. Milne, the first published novels from Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, the first books of poems from Langston Hughes and Dorothy Parker. What’s more, for the first time ever, thanks to a 2018 law called the Music Modernization Act, a special category of works—sound recordings—will finally begin to join other works in the public domain. On January 1 2022, the gates will open for all of the recordings that have been waiting in the wings. Decades of recordings made from the advent of sound recording technology through the end of 1922—estimated at some 400,000 works—will be open for legal reuse.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet walking in the snowWhy celebrate the public domain? When works go into the public domain, they can legally be shared, without permission or fee. That is something Winnie-the-Pooh would appreciate. Community theaters can screen the films. Youth orchestras can perform the music publicly, without paying licensing fees. Online repositories such as the Internet ArchiveHathiTrust, and Google Books can make works fully available online. This helps enable access to cultural materials that might otherwise be lost to history. 1926 was a long time ago. The vast majority of works from 1926 are out of circulation. When they enter the public domain in 2022, anyone can rescue them from obscurity and make them available, where we can all discover, enjoy, and breathe new life into them.

The public domain is also a wellspring for creativity. The whole point of copyright is to promote creativity, and the public domain plays a central role in doing so. Copyright law gives authors important rights that encourage creativity and distribution—this is a very good thing. But it also ensures that those rights last for a “limited time,” so that when they expire, works go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build on the past—reimagining the books, making them into films, adapting the songs and movies. That’s a good thing too! As explained in a New York Times editorial:

When a work enters the public domain it means the public can afford to use it freely, to give it new currency . . . [public domain works] are an essential part of every artist’s sustenance, of every person’s sustenance. 3 

Just as Shakespeare’s works have given us everything from 10 Things I Hate About You and Kiss Me Kate (from The Taming of the Shrew) to West Side Story (from Romeo and Juliet), who knows what the works entering the public domain in 2022 might inspire? As with Shakespeare, the ability to freely reimagine these works may spur a range of creativity, from the serious to the whimsical, and in doing so allow the original artists’ legacies to endure.

Here is a more detailed snapshot of just a few of the books, sound recordings, movies, and musical compositions that will be in the public domain in 2022. 4  They were supposed to go into the public domain in 2002, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years. Now the wait is over. (To find more material from 1926, you can visit the Catalogue of Copyright Entries.) 5  You can click on some of the titles below to get the newly public domain works.

What a list! There is a lot to be excited about—beloved children’s characters, an iconic story of the “lost generation” after World War I, poetry from a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance and pioneer of the blues and jazz aesthetic, and clever verse from the “wittiest woman in America.” Note that in all of these cases, what is going into the public domain are the specific works from 1926, not the later books, movies, or translations based on the original books, or all of the other work by that author. Thus, while you will be free to use the material from the original Winnie-the-Pooh book, not every Pooh story or movie or Hemingway novel or Langston Hughes poem is entering the public domain.

Sound Recordings 

Sound RecordingsIn 2022, experts estimate that some 400,000 sound recordings published before 1923 will enter the public domain! They will become free for all to download, remix, or use in a soundtrack.

US copyright law treats musical compositions and sound recordings differently. A composition consists of the lyrics and music that you might see on a piece of sheet music. A sound recording is the embodiment of a particular performance of that composition, fixed on media such as vinyl records or on digital audio files. If I write a song called “Public Domain Day!” and you record it, I get the copyright over the composition and you get a separate copyright over your recording of my song. 7 

While US copyright law has covered compositions since 1831, it did not add the sound recording right until Feburary 15, 1972. The new right only covered recordings made from that date onward, leaving recordings made before 1972 subject to a confusing patchwork of state laws, with nothing becoming public domain until 2067. 8  The 2018 “Music Modernization Act” brought all of those pre-1972 recordings under federal law and set a timeline for older recordings to gradually enter the public domain. 9 

The first big date was January 1, 2022, when a trove of recordings finally goes into the public domain. (The underlying compositions are already in the public domain because their copyright terms expired earlier—all songs published in 1926 and earlier are public domain.) Yes, these recordings are a century or more old, but better late than never!

What will we celebrate in 2022? Everything from experiments with nascent sound recording technology in the late 1800s to opera, classical music, early blues and jazz, vaudeville, ragtime, popular songs, and comedy sketches. With so many recordings to choose from, we can only feature a few of them here. To listen to more recordings, check out the selections from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections and go to the Library of Congress National Jukebox—in 2022 the Library of Congress will make all of the pre-1923 recordings in its collection available for download from this site, while recordings from 1923 forward will be streaming-only until they are in the public domain. As you look through the following list, note that only the pre-1923 recordings made by these artists are entering the public domain, not their later recordings.

Sound Recordings Entering the Public Domain

Billy Murray, sound recordings

These recordings reintroduce us to some legendary figures. There are incredible artists such as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters, who paved the way for generations to follow, and in Waters’ case became a proud icon for the LGBTQ community. You can hear the first tracks from legendary opera singer Enrico Caruso, or the transcendent cellist Pablo Casals. Even on a scratchy recording from over 100 years ago, the magic comes through with all of these artists. There are recordings by Fanny Brice, the real-life Funny Girl portrayed by Barbra Streisand. There is the multi-talented Sophie Tucker, called “the last of the red-hot mamas.” Bert Williams was the first Black artist to break through the color barrier and star in a leading role on Broadway. Kid Ory recorded the first commercially-released tracks by a New Orleans African-American jazz band. You can hear Europe’s Society Orchestra, the first African-American orchestra to have their work recorded, and Cuban-born conductor Max Dolin directing his orchestra for “La Golondrina.”

For us, these recordings provide an aural time capsule, a way of capturing fragments of the past. You can browse pop stars from Billy Murray to Harry Lauder, or hear John Phillip Sousa’s marches. But you also get a glimpse of the politics of the time. Some of our favorites include songs about women’s suffrage (“She’s Good Enough to Be Your Baby’s Mother (and She’s Good Enough to Vote With You)”) and comic laments about Prohibition such as Bert Williams’ “Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar.”

Rediscovering the incredible early recordings by African-American artists is also an occasion for more somber reflection. They were recording at a time of legally-enforced segregation and the shameful tradition of minstrel shows. 10  Many of the songs from the era contain racist language and demeaning and misleading stereotypes. There was also rampant exploitation of Black talent: Black musicians were routinely excluded from copyright’s benefits and denied both recognition and compensation for their work. The artists featured above were unusual in that they gained some recognition for their contributions in the face of a colossally unfair system, but this does not mean that they were treated fairly. Discrimination, lopsided contracts, and an exclusionary music business deprived many of these artists of the compensation their work so richly deserved. 11 

Movies Entering the Public Domain

'The Son of the Sheik' movie poster
  • For Heaven’s Sake (starring Harold Lloyd)
  • Battling Butler (starring Buster Keaton) 12 
  • The Son of the Sheik (starring Rudolph Valentino)
  • The Temptress (starring Greta Garbo)
  • Moana (docufiction filmed in Samoa)
  • Faust (German expressionist classic)
  • So This Is Paris (based on the play Le Réveillon)
  • Don Juan (first feature-length film to use the Vitaphone sound system)
  • The Cohens and Kellys (prevailed in a famous copyright lawsuit)
  • The Winning of Barbara Worth (a Western, known for its flood scene)

The first four films on the list include performances by the great Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino, and Greta Garbo. Moana is a work of docufiction filmed in Samoa by Robert J. Flaherty, who made the famous 1922 film Nanook of the North. Copyright buffs will remember The Cohens and Kellys from the famous copyright case Nichols v. Universal, in which Judge Learned Hand said (among other things) that stock characters are not copyrightable. Faust is a German expressionist take on the eponymous play by Goethe. Because Goethe’s play was in the public domain, the filmmakers were free to reimagine it. And that borrowing went in more than one direction. On the right, you can see one of the scenes in Faust, which inspired the strikingly similar “Night on Bald Mountain” scene from Disney’s Fantasia.

Musical Compositions

Every piece of recorded music is covered by two distinct copyrights, one over the original composition—the words and music—and the second over the actual recording of the song. Earlier we listed sound recordings from before 1923 entering the public domain. Here are some of the compositions from 1926 that will be joining them.

'Are You Lonesome To-Night' by Roy Turk and Lou Handman, musical composition
  • Bye Bye Black Bird (Ray Henderson, Mort Dixon)
  • Snag It (Joseph ‘King’ Oliver)
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Irving Berlin)
  • Black Bottom Stomp (Ferd ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton)
  • Someone To Watch Over Me (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)
  • Nessun Dorma from Turandot (Giacomo Puccini, Franco Alfano, Giusseppe Adami, Renato Simoni)
  • Are You Lonesome To-Night (Roy Turk, Lou Handman)
  • When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along (Harry Woods)
  • Ke Kali Nei Au (“Waiting For Thee”) (Charles E. King), in 1958 renamed Hawaiian Wedding Song with new lyrics (English) by Hoffman & Manning
  • Cossack Love Song (Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II, George Gershwin, Herbert Stothart)

About The Author

Born to Teachers and Amateur Audio Enthusiasts in the small rural community of Belwood, Jack's first love was stories- writing, reading, telling, and singing. He developed his acting skills through High School, University, and through film and community theatre. Jack writes the lion's share of Electric Vicuna's Audio Drama scripts and has his own writing site at He's thrilled to co-host the Sonic Society with his wonderful, talented, friend David Ault!


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