Tuesday 4 January 2011

Happy New Year and Welcome to the Public Domain

pride and prejudice 1Holidays, festivals and parties abound as the year turns from one to another.  As we recover from all the celebrating, let us not forget one of copyright’s biggest days buried in the midst of all the punch, eggnog and streamers: Public Domain Day.

As is usual for this most festive of IP days, many posts around the blogosphere are listing works that have entered the public domain, works that would have entered the public domain under previous copyright laws and parties and events celebrating it all.

Picture: A page from this blogger’s favorite public domain work

To help you parse through all the delectable free delights, here’s a smattering of some of the goodies the blogosphere has to offer:

  • Publicdomainday.org  An entire website dedicated to the special day.  There’s a color-coded map of copyright terms around the world [oooooh, that’s going to be helpful at work], a list of upcoming public domain related events [the next one is in Torino on 22 Jan] and the Public Domain Manifesto, which you can sign and see your own name on if you have the patience to scroll to the bottom of the very long list of signers.
  • The Public Domain Review  Part of the Open Knowledge Foundation site, the Review features in depth looks at works in the public domain this year and the works’ creators.  So far, it appears there is only one review, of American author Nathanael West.  However, the year is young and the Review site is designed to accept contributions from many sources.
  • Publicdomainworks.net has a list of authors whose works are entering the public domain in jurisdictions where the copyright term is life of the author plus 70 years.  [The many red countries on the Public Domain Day map.]
  • Duke Law has a list of items that would have entered the public domain in the United States had the 1909 Copyright Act still been effect today. 

On a related note, the Duke website also has a sad blurb about Public Domain day in the US:

What is entering the public domain in the United States? Sadly, we will have nothing to celebrate this January 1st. Not a single published work is entering the public domain this year. Or next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that. In fact, in the United States, no publication will enter the public domain until 2019.

This last statement is not entirely true.  Americans do get something, just not in the traditional sense of expiration of the term of protection on a long existing work.  At least two exceptions jump out to me, maybe some readers know of the others.  The first is a specific work, the second applies to many works.

Late last year, in 2010, Mark Twain’s memoirs were published.  Twain had requested that the memoirs not be published until 100 years after his death.  That’s long enough that under current copyright laws everywhere, the work should be in the public domain.  However, there seems to be some dispute as to whether or not the memoirs are in the public domain or whether Twain’s estate has a copyright in them.  The published book, which contains more material than just Twain’s own memoirs bears a copyright notice, but that copyright notice also says that Twain passed away in 1910.  It seems even the publishers aren’t sure. The issue was explored more in-depth in The Sydney Morning Herald a few months ago.

Even without death and the passage of time, works can essentially enter the public domain if the author chooses.  Tools like CC0 allow an author to note that he is giving up all the rights the law will allow him to waive.  Those of us sitting and pouting in the US because nothing is entering the public domain via expiration of copyright term don’t have to fret too hard; there’s always the works that will be voluntarily placed there.

1 comment:

Peter Hirtle said...

FYI, I explain how Twain's autobiography can still be protected by copyright in this post. The bottom line is that the autobiography was published in 2001 in order to take advantage of a loophole that allowed for continued copyright protection.