Image: Warner Bros

The copyright in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famed story The Great Gatsby is inching towards extinction. As the Associated Press reported recently, the exclusive rights that protect the 95-year old novel, which prevent the unauthorized reproduction, distribution, display, and creation of derivative works of the original work, are set to expire at the end of 2020. This means that as of January 1, 2021, the work will enter into the public domain and the exclusive rights currently held by the Fitzgerald’s literary estate will be opened up to the general public. 

In short, as the AP puts it, “Anyone will be allowed to publish you the book, adapt it to a movie, make it into an opera or stage a Broadway musical. No longer will need to permission to write a sequel, a prequel, a Jay Gatsby detective novel or a Gatsby narrative populated with Zombies,” noting that “publishers specializing in older works already are preparing their own editions,” while “a graphic novel, featuring an introduction from Blake Hazard” – the late author’s great-granddaughter and a trustee of his literary estate – planned for a release in June 2021. 

First published in 1925 and proving an enduring read for decades, as “Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan and other characters from [the novel] have been as real to millions of readers as people in their own lives, exemplars and victims of the American pursuit of wealth and status,” the AP writes, after initially receiving mixed reviews and selling poorly, the novel ultimately became a literary staple, selling nearly 30 million copies worldwide, and more than 500,000 copies each year in the U.S., alone. 

As for how the rights in book, itself, have remained exclusively within the control of Fitzgerald and then his estate (following his death in 1940), that is a testament the exclusive bundle of rights that copyright law provides for the creators of “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression” – whether that be novels and song lyrics or photographs and sculptures. 

While Fitzgerald died 80 years ago, The Great Gatsby is still restricted by copyright for a few more months, as “even though the book was published nearly 90 years ago and is a long-established part of our shared cultural heritage, it has not yet entered the public domain,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation states, due to the statutory framework for the duration of copyright-protected works. (One of the statutes is the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act).   

To date, the Fitzgerald estate has been relatively “selective about which Gatsby adaptations to allow,” according to LitHub, while still giving the green-light to  “ballets, radio plays, operas, television movies, stage plays and, of course, big-screen adaptations, from Herbert Brenon’s 1926 silent film to Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film,” which grossed more than $350 million at the box office. The copyright in the film – and the screenplay written by Luhrmann with his long-time collaborator Craig Pearce – will remain in force for decades to come. 

“As with such current public domain titles as Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, and Great Expectations, cheap paperback editions and free e-book editions are likely to proliferate,” the AP asserts. This means that sales – for Gatsby publisher Scribner –“are likely to fall,” but Scribner editor-in-chief Nan Graham says the publisher is “working to hold on to as much of the market as it can, drawing in part on its long ties to Fitzgerald’s heirs.” 

“We’re now looking to a new period and trying to view it with enthusiasm, knowing some exciting things may come.”