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Works from 1927 are about to become part of the public domain

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

On Sunday, a new crop of books, music and films becomes part of the public domain, like this aptly titled song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE")

GEORGE OLSEN: (Singing) The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Phil Harrell looked into what's coming our way on New Year's Day.

PHIL HARRELL, BYLINE: We're talking about works from the year 1927.

JENNIFER JENKINS: Anyone is free to share them, to use them in their own artworks, without fear of legal liability.

HARRELL: Jennifer Jenkins is the director of Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain. She's got an impressive list of songs from that year.

JENKINS: Irving Berlin's "Puttin' On The Ritz."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ")

FRED ASTAIRE: (Singing) If you're blue and you don't know where to go to, why don't you go where fashion sits? Puttin' on the Ritz.

HARRELL: Also, "My Blue Heaven," "Ol' Man River," George and Ira Gershwin's "Funny Face" and "S'Wonderful." There's one novelty song Jenkins remembers hearing as a kid.

JENKINS: And I had that complete enchantment at the phenomenon of a frozen dessert homonym.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ICE CREAM")

FRED WARING AND THE PENNSYLVANIANS: (Singing) I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream.

JENKINS: You know, you see a kid light up when they first hear a pun, and I thought, that's so clever.

HARRELL: Among the books headed for the public domain - titles by Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner.

JENKINS: My favorite is Virginia Woolf's "To The Lighthouse."

HARRELL: And some of Arthur Conan Doyle's last Sherlock Holmes stories, which brings up an interesting question - does just the book go into the public domain? Or can the still profitable characters, like Sherlock and Watson, remain protected?

JENKINS: The estate of Conan Doyle has tried to use some very creative copyright theories to demand licensing fees for the use of these characters.

HARRELL: Like shouldn't their copyrights from the first book not expire after 95 years if the author kept writing about them in subsequent books?

JENKINS: That got rejected in court.

HARRELL: Or what about when other writers give Sherlock new character traits, something that wasn't in the books? Surely, that's copyright infringement.

JENKINS: Guess what? (Laughter) No one can claim to own generic character traits.

HARRELL: The court said no.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON")

BASIL RATHBONE: (As Sherlock Holmes) Elementary, my dear Watson.

HARRELL: 1927 was a transitional year for Hollywood with the release of "The Jazz Singer."

JENKINS: The very first spoken words in a film that were ever heard by an audience came from that movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JAZZ SINGER")

AL JOLSON: (As Jakie Rabinowitz) Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet.

HARRELL: Al Jolson's voice ushered in the age of the talkie. Now, setting aside the fact that "The Jazz Singer" was staggeringly racist, with Jolson performing in blackface, that movie did change everything. It meant the demise of silent films. And many greats were released that same year.

JENKINS: The first winner of the Academy Award for best picture - it was called outstanding picture back then - was a film called "Wings."

HARRELL: Also, the influential sci-fi pic "Metropolis."

JENKINS: That has echoes in everything from "Blade Runner" to the "Star Wars" movies.

HARRELL: Now, luckily, those films have been preserved. But once studios gave up on silent films, often reels were destroyed.

JENKINS: Many of them were melted down for their silver content, which was thought to be more valuable than the film itself. Many were discarded to clear up storage space.

HARRELL: The Library of Congress estimates that 75% of American silent films are partially or completely lost. Jennifer Jenkins says, if only they'd lasted until public domain day.

JENKINS: We have lot of empirical research showing that when works are in the public domain, they're more likely to be preserved because third parties can copy them, digitize them, save them for history, without fear of legal liability.

HARRELL: A process that can begin for works from 1927 on New Year's Day.

Phil Harrell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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