Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Short Introduction to the Public Domain (US)

public domain cover

January 1st is generally known as public domain day around the world, the day when a new batch of work--whether book, film, photographs, or art--enters the public domain. So what entered the public domain this year?



Nothing. Not in the US, anyway (Duke University).

Generally speaking, works enter the public domain 70 years after the death of their author. This means that there's no longer an applicable legal copyright (it DOESN'T mean you're free to plagiarize the work, which is an ethical and not a legal issue).

This seems rather straight-forward, but in practice it's a little murky. In 2002, the US Supreme Court extended the copyright law 17 years, which means the US will have to wait another 7 years before anything enters public domain. The Court recently upheld this decision and said that even if works had already entered the public domain, they could be re-copyrighted (New York Times). It is entirely likely the Court will be prevailed upon to extend copyright again in 2019; and considering their track record, this extension will probably be granted.

As a result of these decisions, the US public domain is shrinking. The generation of works effected most, starting in the 1930s and going into the '50s, is already being called "the missing 20th century" (The Atlantic).

Why is this bad? This is the information age, you have to ask? Think about two blogs--one allows fair use (i.e. non-commercial, academic, critical) of all images and text, and share buttons to all the major sites like FaceBook and Twitter. The other blog won't allow any use of images or text, and has no sharing options. Which blog do you think is going to be read and discussed more? Probably the latter, right? Sharing is caring in digital world, and more people you're able to share your work with, the better. Those who have the most open sharing policy and become a platform for generating creativity win at the internet.

Copyright and the life plus 70 years clause was created to protect artists and their families (interestingly, the idea of protecting copyright for an artist's family began with the death of Charles Dickens, but that's a whole story on its own). Protecting artists and their intellectual property is a GOOD thing. But who exactly are we "protecting" when the artist and his or her immediate family are long dead? And what sort of awareness of our past will we have when the literature and art from previous generations is either unavailable or prohibitively priced due to low consumer demand? These are the questions one wishes had been addressed by the Supreme Court.

What can you do? There's not much the average person can do about a Supreme Court decision, but if you want to promote the public domain and fair use, there are things you can do. Sites like Project Gutenberg and Librivox are not-for-profit and are always looking for volunteers. You can also publish books that are in the public domain yourself through Amazon (if you're not sure whether a book still has copyright or not, check the US copyright renewal database). Or, if you're an author, you can dedicate some of your own work to the public domain. For more ideas, visit Everybody's Libraries.

What are the rules for public domain in your own country?