Happy Public Domain Day 2023

By Debbie Burke


1927 was a watershed year in motion picture history. 

Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. 

“Wait a minute…wait a minute…you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”

Those were the first words ever spoken in a motion picture. Although The Jazz Singer is now considered insensitive, nevertheless, it stands as an historic moment in 1927 when the first “talkie” rang the death knell for the silent film era.

You can listen to a clip of Al Jolson’s first words here. 


January 1, 2023 was Happy Public Domain Day when copyrights ended for movies, literary works, and music published in 1927.

Here’s a partial list of works that are now in the public domain, provided by Duke University.


Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Agatha Christie, The Big Four

Countee Cullen, ed., Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties

Franklin W. Dixon, The Tower Treasure (The Hardy Boys #1)

Franklin W. Dixon, The House on the Cliff (The Hardy Boys #2)

Franklin W. Dixon, The Secret of the Old Mill (The Hardy Boys #3)




Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” the last two stories from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (which means Holmes himself is now in the public domain)

E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Ernest Hemingway, Men Without Women

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

Franz Kafka, Amerika

Anita Loos, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes

Edith Wharton, Twilight Sleep

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse


Metropolis (directed by Fritz Lang)

The Jazz Singer (the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue; directed by Alan Crosland)

Wings (winner of the first Academy Award for outstanding picture; directed by William A. Wellman)

Sunrise (directed by F.W. Murnau)

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller)

The King of Kings (directed by Cecil B. DeMille)

London After Midnight (now a lost film; directed by Tod Browning)

The Way of All Flesh (now a lost film; directed by Victor Fleming)

7th Heaven (inspired the ending of the 2016 film La La Land; directed by Frank Borzage)

The Kid Brother (starring Harold Lloyd; directed by Ted Wilde)

The Battle of the Century (starring the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy; directed by Clyde Bruckman)

Upstream (directed by John Ford)


The Best Things in Life Are Free (George Gard De Sylva, Lew Brown, Ray Henderson; from the musical Good News)

(I Scream You Scream, We All Scream for) Ice Cream (Howard Johnson, Billy Moll, Robert A. King)

Puttin’ on the Ritz (Irving Berlin)

Funny Face and ’S Wonderful (Ira and George Gershwin; from the musical Funny Face)

Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man and Ol’ Man River (Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern; from the musical Show Boat)

Back Water BluesPreaching the BluesFoolish Man Blues (Bessie Smith) Listen here.

Potato Head BluesGully Low Blues (Louis Armstrong)

Rusty Pail BluesSloppy Water BluesSoothin’ Syrup Stomp (Thomas Waller)

Black and Tan Fantasy and East St. Louis Toodle-O (Bub Miley, Duke Ellington)

Billy Goat StompHyena StompJungle Blues (Ferdinand Joseph Morton)

My Blue Heaven (George Whiting, Walter Donaldson)

Diane (Erno Rapee, Lew Pollack)

Mississippi Mud (Harry Barris, James Cavanaugh)


Of particular interest to mystery authors, the last two works by Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes are now in the public domain. What does this mean to writers?

If you’ve always hankered to feature the iconic Sherlock as a character in new adventures, you are free to do so without violating copyright or worrying about legal repercussions (more on that in a moment).

Here are a few genre possibilities:

Sherlock uses his powers of deduction to solve contemporary mysteries in the 21st century;

Or he time-travels through history in pursuit of villains;

Or fantasy stories might bestow magical superpowers like flying, turning invisible, telekinetically moving objects, and casting spells;

Or sci-fi, where he travels to distant universes—a rocket ship or space station makes a great setting for a locked room mystery;

Or for romantic suspense, he can fall in love.

Although a number of contemporary works have featured Holmes and Watson, there is a copyright backstory that’s nearly as complicated as Conan Doyle’s mysteries.

Even though Sherlock and Watson had already entered the public domain, legal battles over Sherlock’s copyright persisted for years. The Conan Doyle estate claimed various justifications to charge licensing fees to authors and film makers who wanted to use the characters.

Most creators paid the fees rather than endure the time and expense of taking the estate to court. But attorney Leslie Klinger fought back and won.

In one suit, Judge Richard Posner criticized the estate’s “unlawful business strategy” and stated:

The Doyle estate’s business strategy is plain: charge a modest license fee for which there is no legal basis, in the hope that the ‘rational’ writer or publisher asked for the fee will pay it rather than incur a greater cost, in legal expenses, in challenging the legality of the demand.

The expiration of the copyright on the last two works featuring Sherlock has now ended any possible claims by the estate.

Sherlock is finally, unquestionably free for any creator to use.

That means, as to Sherlock’s future adventures…you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.


Just for fun, here’s The Battle of the Century, featuring Laurel and Hardy and the greatest custard pie fight of all time:


TKZers: Do any stories, movies, or songs from 1927 make your creative juices flow?

Do you have ideas for repurposing works that are now in the public domain?

Please share your ideas in the comments.

This entry was posted in #amwriting, Hardy Boys, Public Domain Day, scheduling, Sherlock Holmes, time management, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes the Tawny Lindholm series, Montana thrillers infused with psychological suspense. Her books have won the Kindle Scout contest, the Zebulon Award, and were finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and BestThrillers.com. Her articles received journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

27 thoughts on “Happy Public Domain Day 2023

  1. I’ve never found custard pies especially funny, but I must admit the first one here got a snort out of me. Those who like such things must watch Bugsy Malone.

    I’ve been following the Holmes legal hijinks for some time, back when it seemed 2022 would never get here, or, if it did, I wouldn’t be here to appreciate it. I have a dozen or so short Sherlock Holmes pastiches and one serious, longer work. I may flog them somewhere in the near future.

    But it’s my understanding that the battle had already been fought and won, that Sherlock has been fair game since 2014, as long as nothing from the works that expire the end of 2022 was incorporated in a new story. That is, any reference to events in the last 10 stories published, such as the second Mrs. Watson, would have been a copyright violation.

    Maybe I’ll just post my tales on my blog, starting with The Adventure of the Empty Trunk: “It was half eight in Baker Street, and Holmes was sawing away at his violin, producing a creditable simulation of a cat fight. I didn’t say so, having already mentioned it thrice . . .”

    • J, your Sherlock stories sound terrific. And now you can publish them in any form you wish.

      You’re correct that the character entered public domain years ago but the estate continued to try to charge licensing fees which many authors paid to avoid expensive lawsuits.

      How about a new story: “The Case of the Caricatured Copyright”?

  2. Funny how the “what happened” question raises in your mind as soon as you see that a couple of those films listed have been lost. You wonder what their story was, i.e. did they get permanently misplaced? Lost in a warehouse fire or earthquake? Who knows.

    I’ve heard the phrase about scream for ice cream but I never knew where it came from nor that it went back that far.

    As I am not a fan of remakes generally (with some exceptions) I don’t see myself being tempted to utilize a character from a public domain work. The one possible temptation would be a couple of Zane Grey’s books.

    The concept of silent films amazes me. I don’t know how long they typically were but in this fast-paced, ADHD day and age, I think I’d be fidgeting trying to sit through a silent film. But I’m sure at the time it was quite captivating. Amazing how things evolve.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Brenda.

      Celluloid in old films deteriorated with time and was also flammable. A lot were lost to fire. Unless copies were made, many movies ceased to exist.

      Turner Classic Movies sometimes runs old silent features, which are fun to watch. Stories are told with action and facial expressions. I’m surprised at how quickly some plots move, maybe because there isn’t extraneous dialogue to fill the time.

      Let’s scream for ice cream!

      • Nitrate-based film tended to deteriorate and catch fire easily. Four notable vault fires took away the only copies of many silent films. Some films were destroyed to recover the silver therein. It’s said that 3/4 or more of the old films are lost, 7/8 for pre-1929 works. Wankerpedia has a depressing article on the topic.

        There was an incident at a major studio where an executive wanted more office space and they used the vault, which was emptied, and the contents thrown in dumpsters.

  3. Wow, Debbie, fantastic post! Really interesting material. It would be fun to have more time to explore some of these works.

    As to creative juices flowing, mention of the Hardy Boys #1 – #3 caught my attention. When I was in elementary school and had access to a library, that was the first series that seriously addicted me. I would take a book home and climb up into a tree, reading while people walked by on the sidewalk below.

    Sherlock certainly deserves some investigation. He would make a wonderful wizard for an addition to a fantasy series.

    So much to consider! Thanks, Debbie!

  4. Always like to see the new PD entries, Debbie. One area writers can exploit is songs. As we know, quoting song lyrics requires getting permission and paying a fee (though I’ve argued here for fair use). Years ago I paid a fee to quote the full lyrics of a Cole Porter song that my Lead sings for an audition. When I got the rights back and republished it (as No More Lies), instead of reupping with another payment, I went to the PD site and found a 1926 song that works just as well. Boom. Took Mrs. B out for a nice dinner with the savings.

    And…we do not appreciate the artistry in those pie fights. It took a special skill to get those confections to hit a face full on. Retakes were onerous, involving clean up and doing it again. This one from Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy is the quintessence of the form.

  5. Fascinating post, Debbie. Thanks for all the information. I had no idea that the last Sherlock Holmes stories were coming into public domain this year–for some reason, I thought it would be for a while longer. I’m a long-time fan of the great detective, and the thought of writing a story or three about him is intriguing. Hmm.

    I saw “Wings” a few years ago–we picked up the blu-ray. A cinematic epic. Amazing aerial battle sequences using WW1 veterans, and a fine story.

    Foster’s “Aspects of the Novel” is a book I recall reading back in the 1980s–learning that it is now in the public domain gives me an idea. Not that I needed more projects. Maybe I did. You can never have too many, right? 🙂

    Thanks for the all the food for thought this morning. Have a wonderful week!

  6. Fantastic post, Debbie. I had never seen the pie fight before. I wonder how many pies were in that sequence!

    A year or so ago someone in our book club picked Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk. It’s a Sherlock Holmes story and I was surprised that he had the right to publish it. He published in 2011, but now–thanks to you–I understand how that worked.

    I’m going to be interested to see how many Holmes books get published in the next few years.

    • Thanks, Kay.

      Reportedly 3000 pies were thrown, earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

      Wonder how long it took to clean up the mess???

  7. As a writer, I’ve never needed to use other authors’ works, and most of those who do use it as a marketing device more than a creative device. Some people will read a detective novel set in the Victorian/Edwardian period, but a lot of people will read a detective novel set in Sherlock’s universe. Sad, but true.

    • Marilynn, good observation about the difference between marketing device and creative device.

      Some readers are more comfortable with tried and true characters they know while others like a new adventure. Fortunately there are plenty of books to fill everyone’s needs.

  8. Rather than finding inspiration, I’m afraid my mind jumped the other way. Could be the time of day, as I’m running on fumes at the moment. The thought of another writer reimagining my characters horrifies me. On one hand, it means the characters grew to such immense popularity that other writers would want to reimagine them. On the other hand–just no. Even when I’m long dead, they’re still my creations. LOL

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