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The Great Gatsby belongs to all of us – and none of us.

January 4th, 2021
Dan · Staff Recommendations

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

On January 1, 2021, works copyrighted in 1925 finally entered the public domain. Incredible works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Irving Berlin, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Duke Ellington, Buster Keaton and many, many more are now free to enjoy and experience.

This is significant, not just because we will soon find these for free on the Internet Archive, Google Books, and HathiTrust. Creators are also now free to integrate these works into new generative art that will explore, challenge, and continue ongoing cultural conversations.

Copyright can protect the rights of artists, but it can also restrict artistic freedom and inhibit valuable forms of creativity and expression. One example that comes to mind is Nina Paley’s animated mashup, Sita Sings the Blues, released in 2008. The animations connect her own personal story of heartbreak to ancient Hindu stories set to romantic songs from 1920’s jazz singer, Annette Hanshaw. The release of the project had ups and downs as the creator navigated a labyrinth of music licensing restrictions – despite the fact the songs were over 80 years old.

Conceptualizing music as a commodity to be copyrighted does not fully encapsulate the medium as a form of expression. Music is simultaneously deeply personal and part of our shared cultural language. Songs are uniquely capable of evoking a complex combination of connections and emotions because they communicate the historical context they come from, both personally and culturally.

That’s where the magic of Sita Sings the Blues emerges from. The contrast of modern, ancient, and not-so-long-ago reminds us that our most painful and personal feelings are universal and echo through time. In my mind, the integration of Annette Hanshaw’s performances into Sita Sings the Blues adds a unique layer of expression that is, in and of itself, a new creative work.

In that spirit, this year I invite you to uncover, rediscover, and immerse yourself in some of these latest entries into the public domain. I hope they will inspire you in ways that you couldn’t even imagine before you had the freedom to fully experience them – and share them freely.

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