Everybody's Libraries

January 1, 2014

Public Domain Day 2014: The fight for the public domain is on now

Filed under: copyright,data,open access,sharing — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 2:42 pm

New Years’ Day is upon us again, and with it, the return of Public Domain Day, which I’m happy to see has become a regular celebration in many places over the last few years.  (I’ve observed it here since 2008.)  In Europe, the Open Knowledge Foundation gives us a “class picture” of authors who died in 1943, and whose works are now entering the public domain there and in other “life+70 years” countries.  Meanwhile, countries that still hold to the Berne Convention’s “life+50 years” copyright term, including Canada, Japan, and New Zealand, and many others, get the works of authors who died in 1963.  (The Open Knowledge Foundation also has highlights for those countries, where Narnia/Brave-New-World/purloined-plums crossover fanfic is now completely legal.)  And Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain laments that, for the 16th straight year, the US gets no more published works entering the public domain, and highlights the works that would have gone into the public domain here were it not for later copyright extensions.

It all starts to look a bit familiar after a few years, and while we may lament the delays in works entering the public domain, it may seem like there’s not much to do about it right now.  After all, most of the world is getting another year’s worth of public domain again on schedule, and many commentators on the US’s frozen public domain don’t see much changing until we approach 2019, when remaining copyrights on works published in 1923 are scheduled to finally expire.  By then, writers like Timothy Lee speculate, public domain supporters will be ready to fight the passage of another copyright term extension bill on Congress like the one that froze the public domain here back in 1998.

We can’t afford that sense of complacency.  In fact, the fight to further extend copyright is raging now, and the most significant campaigns aren’t happening in Congress or other now-closely-watched legislative chambers.  Instead, they’re happening in the more secretive world of international trade negotiations, where major intellectual property hoarders have better access than the general public, and where treaties can be used to later force extensions of the length and impact of copyright laws at the national level, in the name of “harmonization”.   Here’s what we currently have to deal with:

Remaining Berne holdouts are being pushed to add 20 more years of copyright.  Remember how I said that Canada, Japan, and New Zealand were all enjoying another year of “life+50 years” copyright expirations?  Quite possibly not for long.  All of those countries are also involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, which include a strong push for more extensive copyright control.  The exact terms are being kept secret, but a leaked draft of the intellectual property chapter from August 2013 shows agreement by many of the countries’ trade negotiators to mandate “life+70 years” terms across the partnership.  That would mean a loss of 20 years of public domain for many TPP countries, and ultimately increased pressure on other countries to match the longer terms of major trade partners.  Public pressure from citizens of those countries can prevent this from happening– indeed, a leak from December hints that some countries that had favored extensions back in August are reconsidering.  So now is an excellent time to do as Gutenberg Canada suggests and let legislators and trade representatives know that you value the public domain and oppose further extensions of copyright.

Life+70 years countries still get further copyright extensions.   The push to extend copyrights further doesn’t end when a country abandons the “life+50 years” standard.  Indeed, just this past year the European Union saw another 20 years added on to the terms of sound recordings (which previously had a 50-year term of their own in addition to the underlying life+70 years copyrights on the material being recorded.)  This extension is actually less than the 95 years that US lobbyists had pushed for, and are still pushing for in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to match terms in the US.

(Why does the US have a 95-year term in the first place that it wants Europe to harmonize with?  Because of the 20-year copyright extension that was enacted in 1998 in the name of harmonizing with Europe.  As with climbers going from handhold to handhold and foothold to foothold higher in a cliff, you can always find a way to “harmonize” copyright ever upward if you’re determined to do so.)

The next major plateau for international copyright terms, life+100 years, is now in sight.  The leaked TPP draft from August also includes a proposal from Mexico to add yet another 30 years onto copyright terms, to life+100 years, which that country adopted not many years ago.  It doesn’t have much chance of passage in the TPP negotiations, where to my knowledge only Mexico has favored the measure.   But it makes “life+70″ seem reasonable in comparison, and sets a precedent for future, smaller-scale trade deals that could eventually establish longer terms.  It’s worth remembering, for instance, that Europe’s “life+70″ terms started out in only a couple of countries, spread to the rest of Europe in European Union trade deals, and then to the US and much of the rest of the world.  Likewise, Mexico’s “life+100″ proposal might be more influential in smaller-scale Latin American trade deals, and once established there, spread to the US and other countries.  With 5 years to go before US copyrights are scheduled to expire again in significant numbers, there’s time for copyright maximalists to get momentum going for more international “harmonization”.

What’s in the public domain now isn’t guaranteed to stay there.  That’s been the case for a while in Europe, where the public domain is only now getting back to where it was 20 years ago.  (The European Union’s 1990s extension directive rolled back the public domain in many European countries, so in places like the United Kingdom, where the new terms went into effect in 1996, the public domain is only now getting to where it was in 1994.)  But now in the US as well, where “what enters the public domain stays in the public domain” has been a long-standing custom, the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress can in fact remove works from the public domain in certain circumstances.   The circumstances at issue in the case they ruled on?  An international trade agreement– which as we’ve seen above is now the prevailing way of getting copyrights extended in the first place.   Even an agreement that just establishes life+70 years as a universal requirement, but doesn’t include the usual grandfathered exception for older works, could put the public domain status of works going back as far the 1870s into question, as we’ve seen with HathiTrust international copyright determinations.

But we can help turn the tide.  It’s also possible to cooperate internationally to improve access to creative works, and not just lock it up further.  We saw that start to happen this past year, for instance, with the signing of the Marrakesh Treaty on copyright exceptions and limitations, intended to ensure that those with disabilities that make it hard to read books normally can access the wealth of literature and learning available to the rest of the world.  The treaty still needs to be ratified before it can go into effect, so we need to make sure ratification goes through in our various countries.  It’s a hopeful first step in international cooperation increasing access instead of raising barriers to access.

Another improvement now being discussed is to require rightsholders to register ongoing interest in a work if they want to keep it under copyright past a certain point.  That idea, which reintroduces the concept of “formalities”, has been floated some prominent figures like US Copyright Register Maria Pallante.  Such formalities would alleviate the problem of “orphan works” no longer being exploited by their owners but not available for free use.   (And a sensible, uniform formalities system could be simpler and more straightforward than the old country-by-country formalities that Berne got rid of, or the formalities people already accept for property like motor vehicles and real estate.)  Pallante’s initial proposal represents a fairly small step; for compatibility with the Berne Convention, formalities would not be required until the last 20 years of a full copyright term.  But with enough public support, it could help move copyright away from a “one size fits all” approach to one that more sensibly balances the interests of various kinds of creators and readers.

We can also make our own work more freely available.  For the last several years, I’ve been applying my own personal “formalities” program, in which I release into the public domain works I’ve created that I don’t need to further limit.  So in keeping with the original 14-year renewable terms of US copyright law, I now declare that all work that I published in 1999, and that I have sole control of rights over, is hereby dedicated to the public domain via a CC0 grant.  (They join other works from the 1900s that I’ve also dedicated to the public domain in previous years.)  For 1999, this mostly consists of material I put online, including all versions of  Catholic Resources on the Net, one of the first websites of its kind, which I edited from 1993 to 1999.  It also includes another year’s history of The Online Books Page.

Not that you have to wait 14 years to free your work.  Earlier this year, I released much of the catalog data from the Online Books Page into the public domain.  The metadata in that site’s “curated collection” continues to be released as open data under a CC0 grant as soon as it is published, so other library catalogs, aggregators, and other sites can freely reuse, analyze, and republish it as they see fit.

We can do more with work that’s under copyright, or that seems to be.  Sometimes we let worries about copyright keep us from taking full advantage of what copyright law actually allows us to do with works.  In the past couple of years, we saw court rulings supporting the rights of Google and HathiTrust to use digitized, but not publicly readable, copies of in-copyright books for indexing, search, and preservation purposes.   (Both cases are currently being appealed by the Authors Guild.)  HathiTrust has also researched hundreds of thousands of book copyrights, and as of a month ago they’d enabled access to nearly 200,000 volumes that were classified as in-copyright under simple precautionary guideliness, but determined to be actually in the public domain after closer examination.)

In the coming year, I’d like to see if we can do similar work to open up access to historical journals and other serials as well.  For instance, Duke’s survey of the lost public domain mentions that articles from 1957 major science journals like Nature, Science, and JAMA are behind paywalls, but as far as I’ve been able to tell, none of those three journals renewed copyrights for their 1957 issues.  Scientists are also increasingly making current work openly available through open access journals, open access repositories, and even discipline-wide initiatives like SCOAP3, which also debuts today.

There are also some potentially useful copyright exemptions for libraries in Section 108 of US copyright law that we could use to provide more access to brittle materials, materials nearing the end of their copyright term, and materials used by print-impaired users.

Supporters of the public domain that sit around and wait for the next copyright extension to get introduced into their legislatures are like generals expecting victory by fighting the last warThere’s a lot that public domain supporters can do, and need to do, now.  That includes countering the ongoing extension of copyright through international trade agreements, promoting initiatives to restore a proper balance of interest between rightsholders and readers, improving access to copyrighted work where allowed, making work available that’s new to the public domain (or that we haven’t yet figured out is out of copyright), and looking for opportunities to share our own work more widely with the world.

So enjoy the New Year and the Public Domain Day holiday.  And then let’s get to work.

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