Entering the Public Domain

Every year, under United States copyright law, the intellectual ownership of creative material published 95 years earlier shifts from an individual author or artist to the general public. Commonly, this is referred to as a work “entering the public domain.”

The process of entering the public domain signals a new transition within the lifecycle of copyright. This new era of public ownership is significant for many reasons, but chief among them is that it allows anyone to use and build upon the content of this material as they wish, largely without fear of copyright infringement. Publishers can release new editions, scholars can create new compilations, and the public can rediscover long-forgotten works.

At the beginning of this year, Princeton University Library (PUL) launched its “In the Public Domain” digital collection, a curated selection of books entering the public domain starting in the year 2020 (or those published in 1924) that have been chosen by the librarians in PUL’s Special Collections Department.

Curated by Jennifer Garcon, Librarian for Modern and Contemporary Special Collections and Emma Sarconi, Reference and Outreach Specialist, the project began by releasing items from 1926 and 1927 on January 1, 2023. Throughout 2023, new pages will be added to the collection for items from 1924 and 1925. From there, the project will add a new slate of items every January.

illustrated cover image of “Copper Sun” by Countee Cullen

Cover of “Copper sun,” by Countee Cullen; with decorations by Charles Cullen

“All of the books that were selected were important milestones in literature,” said Garcon, “although only two each year have been recognized as canonical within a North American literary landscape. The others celebrate the narratives of women, Queer, and/or People of Color to challenge and expand notions of the canon.”

By making these items digitally available and highlighting them here, PUL hopes to enrich common understandings of the 20th-century literary landscape, inspire readers and scholars to explore works previously unknown, and challenge itself to engage and explore the multiplicity of voices held in its stacks.

“The project aims to elevate and celebrate significant works that have not been recognized by the dominant canon or scholarship,” said Sarconi. “By diversifying the type of material found in Princeton’s digital holdings, we hope to broaden and increase access to our materials, and support and encourage research on a wider range of material.”

Sarconi added, “These lists are not meant to be definitive nor comprehensive; they are not meant to be bibliographies. Rather, they are meant to inspire, excite and expand what it means for a work to be ‘important’.” 

Black & white illustration, 3 silhouetted figures under a light, listening to a trombone; illustrations bordering image

Image from “God's trombones: seven Negro sermons in verse,” by James Weldon Johnson; drawings by Aaron Douglas; lettering by C. B. Falls

“We are indebted to those who have come before us – the scholars, researchers, and enthusiasts who had already identified examples of early 20th-century African American literature, Queer Literature, Women’s Literature, and Indigenous Literature in bibliographies, essays, and blog posts,” said Garcon. “In addition to these bibliographies, we consulted lists of authors considered ‘forgotten’ and others considered ‘firsts.’ We thought about our own personal relationship with the canon, the authors we read and didn’t read in our schooling. We thought about what the canon means for all of us. With this in mind, we crafted a guiding mandate for the objectives of this project and proceeded in identifying material that highlights narratives by or about the experiences of women, Queer and/or People of Color.”

While the project is limited to objects currently held by PUL, where Princeton is the primary holding institution, students, faculty, and staff are welcome to suggest titles that they think should be included in future years. Use the Special Collections “Ask Us!” form to submit recommendations.

Garcon concluded, “There are books that are not on these lists that we wish were or could be. Maybe one day, we will have the opportunity to add them.”

Visit Digital Princeton University Library to view an ever-growing number of thematic digital collections and exhibitions, as well as accompanying content from librarians, curators, and other subject experts.

To learn more about the University’s policies concerning copyright and intellectual property, visit Copyright at Princeton

Published March 7, 2023

Written by: Stephanie Oster, Publicity Manager

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications