Peter Pan, Threepenny Opera: What's Passing Into Public Domain in 2024? | Playbill

Special Features Peter Pan, Threepenny Opera: What's Passing Into Public Domain in 2024?

A new year, another new batch of works newly open for free adaptation and performance.

Sandy Duncan and George Rose

A new year is upon us, and that can only mean one thing. Well actually, it means lots of things, but for theatre nerds, there's a whole new crop of works passing into public domain, which means they're no longer protected by copyright.

What does that mean? It means that the work becomes "ours" to do with as we please. Productions can be mounted without paying royalties to authors' estates, we can freely make new adaptations and derivative works—the sky is truly the limit. It explains why there's currently dueling musical adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby vying for Broadway—that book entered public domain in 2022.

There are some caveats to be aware of, however, which we explored in more detail last year when Show Boat became public domain. Most important among those caveats is that albums, movies, sometimes even sheet music can all have their own separate copyrights that might still be in place. In short, don't go wild with that stuff.

But enough asterisks. What's going into public domain as of January 1, 2024? Some heavy hitters!

Peter Pan

Perhaps the most famous work going into public domain will be J.M. Barrie's 1928 play Peter Pan; Or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. You'd think this work would have lost copyright protection a long time ago, because it debuted in 1904—the novel adaptation, titled Peter and Wendy, has been in public domain for years. But copyright law is complex. In the U.S. it's all about publication date, and Barrie's play script was not published Stateside until 1928. So, it's only as of 2024 that the work becomes public domain. 

Muddying the waters even more is the fact that Peter Pan is subject to a special law in the U.K. that enshrined its copyright protection indefinitely. When Barrie died, he assigned the play's copyright to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, which has been the benefactor of the work's royalties ever since. And in the U.K., it always will be. 

That means your royalty-free Peter Pan productions will simply have to stay this side of the pond. And if you want to write a derivative work or adaptation and have any plans for it being able to play the U.K. one day, you'll still need to work with the rights holders

A crucial reminder: Most Peter Pan adaptations are still copyrighted, including the 1954 musical version pictured above!

Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper in The Threepenny Opera. Joan Marcus

The Threepenny Opera

Another work entering public domain in 2024 is Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, or more accurately, Die Dreigroschenoper. Yes, the original German version of the musical work is going into public domain.

But this one is tricky too because that original version is almost never performed in the U.S. Just like individual recordings and films can still have copyright protections, so do translations and adaptations. As with Show BoatThreepenny is going into public domain, but that will likely mostly mean we'll get some new adaptations (as opposed to a bunch of productions of the German original). But hey, if you know the language and want to go for it, far be it for us to stop you.

It also bears mentioning that the 1928's Die Dreigroschenoper's songs are all in public domain now, too, including the frequently covered "Mack the Knife" (or "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer," rather). As with the work at large, you'll have to be careful about the lyric translation you're using—in fact, you'll probably need to pen your own. But the song has had a rich life even as an instrumental tune, and its public domain moment will likely only add fuel to that fire. 

This last detail also applies to the songs from a host of other 1928 musicals that would never be performed today. You may not know Cole Porter's musical Paris, or Bert Kalmar, Herbert Stothart, and Harry Ruby's Good Boy. But we bet you know "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" and "I Wanna Be Loved By You" from those respective scores. So if you want to write a musical using those 1928 tunes as a base, no one will stop you.

John Slattery and Nathan Lane in a scene from The Front Page

The Front Page

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 play The Front Page follows adversarial newspaper reporters working the Chicago crime beat. The comedic work has been popular since it premiered—Broadway last got a revival in 2016, starring Nathan Lane and John Slattery

But it's perhaps best known for its many iconic screen adaptations (none of which, by the way, are yet in public domain). Straightforward adaptations hit the big screen in 1931 and 1974, the latter directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. A 1940 screen version re-titled His Girl Friday reimagines the action between a male newspaper editor and his ex-wife, a female reporter. Featuring iconic performances from Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at the height of their powers, the film is a true classic.

As long as you use the text of the original 1928 play, without any lines from those screen adaptations, you are free to perform the play without paying any royalties.

Zita Johann and Clark Gable in Machinal Vandamm Studio/©NYPL for the Performing Arts


Less frequently performed and adapted is Sophie Tredwell's Machinal, an avant-garde play about a woman driven to murder by sexist societal expectations of women. Since premiering in 1928, the play has been presented on TV a handful of times and revived Off-Broadway. It's only come back to the Main Stem once, via Roundabout Theatre Company in 2014 starring Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector. 

But it's a fantastic play that sadly remains timely. So maybe passing into public domain will make it more prominent in the repertoire of U.S. theatres.

There are, in fact, a myriad of plays published in 1928 that will be falling into public domain, sadly most seldom-produced these days. But on that list is R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End, Philip Barry's Holiday, and Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne's Wings Over Europe, amongst many others.

Mickey Mouse

Now, if you've seen any discussion of public domain elsewhere, you likely already know there's an elephant in the room that's liable—likely, even—to affect theatrical works in the months ahead without being expressly theatrical. Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse is entering public domain. 

Well, kind of. 

The world-famous mascot made his debut in the animated shorts Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy, both entering public domain as of January 1. That means that the character himself is also losing copyright protection, but only the 1928 version of him. 

Needless to say, the Mickey Mouse of today bares very little resemblance to the character as he debuted, and the famously litigious Disney is going to make creating new adaptations of him difficult. How do we prove that this derivative Mickey Mouse is only based on his 1928 appearance and not more modern versions? Could Disney argue that elements of his character and personality derive from later editions still protected by copyright? 

All of this remains to be seen, and will likely get hashed out in courts. Suffice it to say, it's unlikely that we'll see a non-Disney Mickey Mouse The Musical anytime soon. But one of the world's most recognizable characters entering into public domain is too tantalizing a proposition for artists to not test the limits. 

We will no doubt see non-Disney entities attempt to use the character in some ways, and probably across any number of mediums. Being that Disney as a lobbying corporation has been uniquely instrumental in getting copyright periods legally extended, Mickey Mouse is more or less the poster child for copyright as a concept, making it potentially powerful as a tool for other artists now that it's entering public domain.

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