Public Domain Day gifts

Quite the festive day today! All over the world, people who use the Gregorian calendar are celebrating New Year’s Day. Here in Philadelphia, it’s Mummer’s Parade day. And in my church, it’s a special day dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and to world peace.

Much of the world gets to celebrate today as Public Domain Day as well, the day when a whole year’s worth of copyrights enter the public domain for anyone to copy or reuse as they like.

In countries that use the “life plus 50 years” minimum standard of the Berne Convention, works by authors who died in 1957 enter the public domain today. That includes writers, artists, and composers like Nikos Kazantzakis, Diego Rivera, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jean Sibelius, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

In countries that use the “life plus 70 years” term, works by authors who died in 1937 enter the public domain, including works by J. M. Barrie, Jean de Brunhoff, H. P. Lovecraft, Maurice Ravel, and Edith Wharton. Since many countries with this term recently extended it due to trade agreements, they’re often seeing these works re-enter the public domain after being removed from it, but their return to the public is still appreciated.

In countries like the US and Australia, which are under 20-year freezes of all or most of the public domain, it’s not quite as momentous a day. Here in the US, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, we’re once again waking up to a public domain 1922, as we have since 1998. Our next mass expiration of copyrighted published material is scheduled for New Year’s Day 2019, 11 years from now. That’s assuming that copyright isn’t again extended before then. Recent extensions here and abroad have often been pushed through in the name of “harmonization” (which seems to always lengthen rather than shorten copyrights), and with Mexico now having a life+100 years term, I would not at all be surprised to see that as the pretext for the next round of attempts to further extend copyright.

But this is not a foregone conclusion. Canada, notably, has held the line at life+50 years for its copyright terms, despite many of its trading partners extending their terms further. And a recent attempt to introduce stricter copyright-related technology controls in Canada was turned back due to public protest, much of it organized online. Similar sustained activism in the US and other countries can keep our copyright laws from getting more out of balance.

Let’s not just ask what the public domain can do for us; let’s ask what we can do for the public domain. In particular, as of this year more than 14 years have passed since the Web started to explode into public consciousness, with NCSA’s release of the Mosaic web browser in 1993. Many of us older Net users started creating web sites that year. And 14 years was the original term of copyright specified in the UK’s Statute of Anne, and the US’s first copyright law (with an optional renewal term).

As an advocate of more reasonable copyright terms, like those envisioned by our country’s founders, I am therefore today dedicating the copyrights of all 1993 versions of my web sites into the public domain. These sites include The Online Books Page, which is still in operation, and Catholic Resources on the Net, which I stopped maintaining in 1999.

Admittedly, this dedication is largely symbolic, since I don’t have 1993 copies of these sites close to hand, though they may still exist in backup copies somewhere in my files, or in unauthorized mirrors (which in some cases were created very early in the sites’ histories). And early on, these sites didn’t have much original prose on them, instead being mostly links that are now largely out of date. But I hope to keep dedicating to the public another year’s worth of these sites each Public Domain Day in the future, and eventually they get more interesting and accessible. And perhaps others who also created content online in the early years of the Web will join in as well, and show that they’re happy releasing their material under shorter copyright terms.

In any case, I’m very interested in hearing about things that people are giving to or receiving from the public domain this year. Happy Public Domain Day!

Author: John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.

17 thoughts on “Public Domain Day gifts”

  1. Is it my understanding that you think all things should have smaller copyrights? I’m not sure about that. I think it’s not a bad idea for 100 year+life copyright. Sure it’s a little annoying sometimes to have to pay for it, but isn’t that fair to the family or whomever has the copyright? I’m an artist and I for sure want my family to make so money after I’m gone.

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