Friday, 1 January 2010

Happy public domain – bah! Humbug!

Three hundred years ago clocks ticked over from 31 December 1709 to 1 January 1709 (New Year’s Day being 25 March). Even today the transition to 1 January might be less than dramatic. For many copyright works 1 January is the first day of life in the public domain, but does that mean they’re suddenly all fair game?

Copyright-generating individuals who passed away in 1939 include W. B. Yeats, Sigmund Freud, Arthur Rackham and American Western author Zane Grey. They must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu as they enter the UK public domain, having previously done so in 1990. But is this really it? Balloons released into the sky, they may yet get snared on some branch. Copyright works have more lives, it seems, than cats...

1. Original copyright term.
2. Revived copyright term.
3. Works published posthumously (Zane Grey left a stockpile of manuscripts that were published for many years after his death).
4. Copyright continues in countries beyond the UK, such as many US works (Zane Grey).
5. The original work is out of copyright but the adaptation isn’t (translation of Freud).
6. Material around the work is still in copyright – text accompanying Rackham’s illustrations, editorial matter (notes for Yeats or Freud) or the book jacket. The presentation of the work may be in copyright (typography).
7. Material within the work is still in copyright (Yeats literary criticism).
8. It isn’t in copyright but you still have to pay a royalty (text of Peter Pan illustrated by Rackham).
9. It isn’t in copyright but is protected by another IP right – e.g. a trade mark or a database right (Yeats poetry anthology?).
10. It isn’t in copyright but you can’t copy it because either you can’t get past the DRM or it’s in a physical place you can’t access like an art gallery with a no photography policy.

I feel a New Year’s resolution coming on: ‘Do something original!’ Hmm...maybe that’s a bit over-ambitious...

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