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Winnie-the-Pooh and more works will enter the public domain tomorrow


With the new year comes a new crop of books, films and music going into the public domain. Most older works of art get copyright protection for 95 years in this country, and then they're pretty much fair game for the public to freely enjoy and build upon. And tomorrow, that includes two of the most recognizable characters in children's literature - Winnie-the-Pooh and Bambi.

Jennifer Jenkins directs the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University, and she joins us now to talk more about this. Welcome.

JENNIFER JENKINS: Thank you so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: What does it really mean for some of these works and characters like Bambi and Winnie-the-Pooh to enter the public domain? What exactly is now becoming fair game?

JENKINS: So Disney still has copyrights over its newer, for example, Winnie-the-Pooh movies. Now, they also have trademarks for the use, for example, of the words Winnie-the-Pooh as a brand. We're not talking about sticking Disney's Winnie-the-Pooh on a backpack or pajamas or a lunchbox. We're talking about that piece of literary work, that gentle book by A. A. Milne from 1926. That's in the public domain, and we can all revisit, reimagine, write our own version of it.

MCCAMMON: And for the first time ever, as I understand it, sound recordings are entering the public domain as well. And we're not just talking about music and lyrics, but specific recordings of songs. What are some of the titles we'll now have access to?

JENKINS: We are talking about every single sound recording from before 1923 - everything from the advent of sound recording technology all the way through to early jazz and blues. There are recordings of songs about women's suffrage - for example, the song "She's Good Enough To Be Your Baby's Mother And She's Good Enough To Vote With You."


ANNA CHANDLER: (Singing) No man is greater than his mother. No man is half so good.

JENKINS: There are a lot of songs about Prohibition, including one by Bert Williams, who was the first African American Broadway star to break through the color barrier and have a lead role on Broadway. So he has a hilarious song - he's fantastic - called "Everybody Wants A Key To My Cellar."


BERT WILLIAMS: (Singing) Down in my cellar, down in my cellar, I've been changing everything around.

JENKINS: But also just the voices that you can hear - over a century old - on those scratchy recordings - you've got to listen to Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues." She was one of the first African American singers ever to record the blues, and, boy, can she sing. She's amazing.


MAMIE SMITH: (Singing) I can't sleep at night. I can't eat a bite.

MCCAMMON: What is the larger cultural impact, I guess, of having all this work in the public domain? I mean, we'll learn a lot about the history of these works. And what becomes possible in terms of maybe new works of art being created?

JENKINS: We all build upon the past. And I think it a great example of the kind of creativity that the public domain enables is to look last year at what happened after "The Great Gatsby" from 1925 entered the public domain. We had a prequel about Nick. It was called "Nick." Because this always happens, there was a zombie version. It was called "The Great Gatsby Undead" (laughter). And Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine is even writing a musical version. So these are all the kind of adaptations and creative reuses that the public domain enables, and I'm really excited to see what comes down the pipeline this year.

MCCAMMON: Sounds fascinating - sounds like endless possibilities. Jennifer Jenkins is the director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Thanks so much for joining us, and Happy New Year.

JENKINS: Happy New Year to you. It was a delight talking to you. Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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