Beginning January 1, 2022, it’s going to become easier for people looking to use or monetize some enduring elements of popular culture. Books and movies with characters and artists as varied as Greta Garbo, William Faulkner, and Winnie the Pooh will be entering the public domain for the first time. That means the materials can be repurposed, shared, or uploaded to YouTube without incurring the wrath of rights holders.
The most prominent is probably Winnie-the-Pooh, author A.A. Milne’s first book about the honey-gorged bear who lives in Hundred Acre Wood. The title was first published in 1926, which means it’s now subject to a 1988 law stipulating works enter the public domain 95 years following their release or publication.
Another key children’s title, Felix Salten’s Bambi: A Life in the Woods, is also now free for anyone to use.
Other notable written works from that year that are now copyright-free are The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s novel about American and British expatriates; Dorothy Parker’s poetry collection Enough Rope; and The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes. A classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is also on the list.
Films featuring major stars of the era are also being redefined, including the Buster Keaton vehicle Battling Butler and Greta Garbo’s The Temptress.
Public domain also applies to music, and in a broader way: Early sound recordings made prior to 1923 will be available and total over 400,000.
While these works are now free from copyright restrictions, that doesn’t mean you’ll be seeing a deluge of Winnie the Pooh cartoons. While Milne’s first Pooh book is subject to the public domain release, it doesn’t apply to Disney’s cartoon iteration or any of Milne’s subsequent books. (Yet.) The same goes for Bambi, where public domain wouldn’t be relevant to Disney’s 1942 animated version.
Nor is public domain entirely free from controversy. In 2013, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to argue that the Sherlock Holmes canon wasn’t precisely in the public domain because Holmes himself was a character whose copyright term could not be established because he was still an incomplete creation separate from the stories. It was a novel legal theory, but an unsuccessful one. If you'd like to write a story teaming up Holmes with Winnie the Pooh to help solve the murder of Bambi's mother, now you can.