The Reason Why The Great Gatsby Isn’t In the Public Domain (Yet)

Oli Scarff/Staff via Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Staff via Getty Images / Oli Scarff/Staff via Getty Images

Copyright laws in America are incredibly complicated, especially for books. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, it won’t enter the public domain until January 1, 2021. Why is that?

In 1976, Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976, which revised copyright laws from 1909. When the act went into effect in 1978, it extended copyright protection throughout the life of an author plus 50 years after their death. Another section stated that anonymous works, pseudonymous works, and works made for hire were copyrighted 75 years from publication.

Sonny Bono—who was not only half of Sonny and Cher but also the mayor of Palm Springs, California from 1988 to 1992 and a California congressman—is one person who is responsible The Great Gatsby's public domain delay. In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extends the Copyright Act of 1976. The latter established that works like The Great Gatsby would become public domain 75 years after the date of publication. But the 1998 act extended the publication date for certain works—namely: those published with a copyright notice and with copyright renewed—20 more years, giving The Great Gatsby a total of 95 years copyright protection. (The bill was named for Bono when the law passed the House of Representatives shortly after his death in 1998.) That means that The Great Gatsby—and many other books—won’t enter the public domain until long after publication; in this case January 1, 2021.

However, Fitzgerald’s pre-1923 works like This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) are already in the public domain.

Gizmodo argues that having these copyright restrictions on older books is detrimental to literary history. “Between excessively long copyright terms and the uncertainty of public domain status, creating new works that depend on the commons has become difficult and dangerous,” they note. “A diminished public domain doesn’t just rob us of past works, but of the future works that could rely on an expanded public domain.”

One study done on books for sale on Amazon revealed that books published after 1923 are “available at a dramatically lower rate than books from even an entire century before," as Gizmodo put it.

The good news is that unless Congress decides to extend the Copyright Act further, we can look forward to The Great Gatsby becoming part of the public domain soon.