Sunday, January 02, 2011

Public Domain Day

Yesterday was Public Domain Day. Every year on January 1, thousands of works enter the public domain due to copyright expiration.

But don't go looking for the titles pictured above on Project Gutenberg just yet. They could have been entering the public domain under the law that existed until 1978, but under current law, they won't be available until 2050.

When a work enters the public domain, the content is no longer controlled by anyone. Instead, it becomes a common treasure. What that means is that a poem can be turned into a song, a book can be made into a movie, a play can be adapted for a modern audience, historical photographs can be used in documentaries, text can be freely translated into different languages or new file formats and distributed online, or professionally printed into a leather bound copy and sold... by anyone. There are a myriad of other uses for public domain works.

Artists have always built from the creative works that preceded them. The perfect example is Walt Disney who, in 1923, produced a short film titled Alice's Wonderland. Disney, of course, went on to make animated versions of many other popular tales: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Dumbo, Bambi... the list goes on.

And yet the company that built their empire on public domain works doesn't want anybody else to do the same. That's why the Copyright Term Extension Act is pejoratively called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. It's no secret that Disney and its friends had a skillful and greedy hand in the legislation.

And when these extensions run out, I'm sure they will lobby again and again in perpetuity. Disney borrowed from the public domain, but will never give back.

I'm not so concerned whether I can personally get a book or a song for free or not. I'm concerned about the cultural impoverishment that will result as fewer and fewer relevant works are freed for creators to draw upon.

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