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Metropolis, Sherlock Holmes, and more enter public domain in 2023

Some true classics are up for grabs next year

What do the worlds of Marvel, DC, Avatar, and Dune all have in common? They’re all intellectual property, or IP. With legal roots dating back to the Constitution, one way to protect IP is copyright, one of the most fiercely fought over concepts in any realm of entertainment. But much to the chagrin of companies and estates everywhere, creative IP can’t be locked away forever. Eventually, they enter the public domain.

Come Jan. 1, 2023, a host of characters and creative works will be freed from their legal shackles and available for anyone to use as they see fit. The Public Domain Review offers a good breakdown of how different countries and regions define public domain. In the United States this year, works created in 1927 will enter the public domain when the New Year hits.

So what, you might think? A bunch of old stuff from long ago that nobody remembers. Well, not so fast. The Roaring ‘20s were a creative goldmine, filled with works and characters that are still influential today. Last year, Winnie the Pooh entered the public domain — and was subsequently turned into a horror movie due out in 2023. Here are some of the highlights of the works from long ago that will soon be available for all.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

The last of Arthur Conan Doyle’s collections of Holmes mysteries has been subject to a surprisingly long legal battle. For years, Conan Doyle’s estate battled with lawyer and Holmes obsessive Leslie S. Klinger over the rights to publish stories of the great detective. In 2013, a judge ruled that Klinger had the right to publish pre-1923 Holmes stories, although the estate said that many depictions of the Baker Street detective were based around stories that came later.

The clock has slowly been ticking on that argument, allowing more and more of Holmes — not to mention Watson and Moriarty — to enter the public domain. And now the last two Holmes stories Conan Doyle wrote, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” and “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” will join their brethren in the public domain, fully bringing the character into fair use.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

There are movies before Metropolis and movies after. One of the true landmarks of cinema, Metropolis introduced the world to sci-fi epics. A story of a futuristic dystopia filled with wealthy industrialists who live in pleasure palaces, underground workers who power their great machines, and robots who pretend to be people, Metropolis was a landmark in both design and visual effects. As Roger Ebert has noted, it’s hard to imagine the Replicants of Blade Runner without the robotic False Maria, Zion in The Matrix without its perilous underworld, or even the mad scientists of countless movies without this movie’s Rotwang. In a moment of increasing wealth disparity, Metropolis is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Franz Kafka’s Amerika

Franz Kafka’s Amerika cover featuring a man with an onion head Image: Penguin Classics

Another final work, Kafka’s unfinished novel traces the journey of teenage Karl Rossman, a European immigrant who comes to America, fleeing a scandal. While Kafka never left Europe, he based his story on the experiences of his relatives, with a few trademark surreal twists. In Kafka’s Amerika, the Statue of Liberty has a “sword in her hand,” lifted above her head, Karl mixes with both senators and drifters, and eventually sets out from New York to Oklahoma.

In his diaries, Kafka suggested that he was inspired by Charles Dickens when writing Amerika, perhaps hoping to track a David Copperfield-like growth in a young man as he undergoes a mysterious journey into the American heartland. Amerika has inspired directors like Federico Fellini and Lars Von Trier. Freed from copyright (like the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Kafka’s writings have also been subject to intense legal battle), the work can now be remixed by anyone seeking their own ending to Kafka’s enduring mystery.

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

A blue background with a flat 2d lighthouse on the cover of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse Image: Bloomsbury/Alma Books

One of the touchstones of literary modernism, not much technically “happens” in To the Lighthouse. A philosophical novel concerning the Ramsay family, the action kicks off when Mrs. Ramsay assures her son James that they will be able to visit a lighthouse on their summer vacation the next day, and then Mr. Ramsay says they cannot because he’s sure the weather will be bad.

These conversations don’t simply happen. They happen in between deep investigations into each character’s hidden motivations and desires, single sentences spurring entire paragraphs of psychological spelunking and exploration. There’s a feeling of transience throughout, especially as the novel moves through the devastation of World War I.

Large themes emerge in To the Lighthouse, of beauty and life, but it’s worth reading to simply take in Woolf’s astonishing sentences. “What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”