Public Domain Day 2009: Freeing the libraries

In many countries, January 1 isn’t just the start of a new year: it’s the time when a new year’s worth of works are welcomed into the public domain.  As I noted in last year’s Public Domain Day post, countries that use the copyright terms specified by the Berne Convention bring works into the public domain on the first January 1 that’s more than 50 years after the death of their authors.  So today, most works by authors who died in 1958 join the public domain in those countries.  This page at lists many such authors, and their books.  Some of the more notable names include James Branch Cabell, Rachel Crothers, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, C. M. Kornbluth, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Robert W. Service, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Many countries, however, have extended their copyright terms in recent years.   Most European Union countries, for instance, took 20 years worth of works out of the public domain in the 1990s when the EU mandated that copyright terms be extended to run for the life of the author plus 70 years.  This year, they come a little bit closer to recovering their lost public domain, welcoming back works by authors who died in 1938, including people like Karel Capek, Zona Gale, Georges Melies, Constantin Stanislavsky, Osip Mandelstam, Owen Wister, and Thomas Wolfe.

In some other countries, very little is entering the public domain today.  Here in the US, we’re midway through a freeze on most copyright expirations, resulting from a term extension enacted in 1998.  We now have 10 years to go until copyrights on published works start expiring again due to age. (By 1998, all works copyrighted prior to 1922 had entered the public domain.  Remaining copyrights from 1923 are scheduled to expire at the start of 2019.) Some special interests would like to make copyright terms even longer (even “forever less one day”, as Congresswoman Mary Bono requested on behalf of the movie industry).  Those of us who value the public domain will need to ensure that it is not further eroded, and that copyrights are allowed to expire on schedule.  This is in keeping with the intents of the country’s founders, who specified in the Constitution that copyrights were meant to last only for “limited times”.

But even though few works are entering the public domain in the US today, many more works are now freely and easily available to the public today than a year ago.  Much of this is thanks to initiatives like Google Books and the Open Content Alliance, which are digitizing books and other works that libraries have acquired and preserved.  Many of the digitized works are in the public domain, and these projects have been making them freely readable and downloadable when they can confirm their public domain status.  And now that Google has negotiated a settlement with book publisher and author groups,  they plan to be more proactive about identifying and releasing public domain works, including works published after 1922 that are out of copyright (but are not so easy identified as public domain as older books are).

These works have been part of the public domain for years, but when they were simply sitting on the shelves of a few research libraries, they weren’t doing the public much good.  Once they’re digitized, though, and their digitizations and descriptions are shared online, they can be much more easily found, read, adapted, and reused by anyone online.  By opening up the treasure trove of public domain expression that libraries have preserved, we magnify its value.  When libraries share their intellectual endowment, they better fulfill their mission to bring art and knowledge to readers, and make it easy for readers to learn, build on, and be enriched by this knowledge.

I wish I could say that libraries always acted with this understanding.   Unfortunately, all too often libraries and affiliated organizations have been resistant or slow to share the information they compile and control.  The effective value of what libraries offer has been significantly diminished as a result.

Sometimes libraries simply have not moved as quickly as they could.  The Copyright Office has long provided online access to copyright records, but only from 1978 onward.  I started digitizing older copyright records over 10 years ago, and a few libraries started doing so as well, but many older records have not yet been publicly digitized, though they’re available in printed form in many government depository libraries.  These records can make it much easier to verify public domain status of many works, and then make them available to the public.

Sometimes libraries and affiliated organizations put up their own restrictions on sharing information they already have in digital form.  I had a series of posts in November, for instance, criticizing OCLC‘s newly revised restrictions on sharing and reusing catalog records that libraries have contributed to WorldCat, the largest shared cataloging resource for libraries. The data in WorldCat can be the basis for many useful and innovative applications to direct readers towards useful information resources, and information about those resources.  And in December, an extremely useful downloadable semantic web representation of Library of Congress subject headings, the basis for information discovery applications like this one, was ordered taken down by LC administrators.

In the new year, I hope to encourage libraries to be more open in sharing their knowledge resources (and to support partners that also enable such openness).  My gifts to the public domain this year are in that spirit.

The first one, dedicated immediately to the public domain, is the start of a simple, free decimal classification system, intended to be reasonably compatible with certain existing library standards, but freely available and usable by anyone for any purpose.  (I created this after someone requested such a system for their institutional repository, and found out that the current Dewey Decimal system is subject to usage restrictions based on copyright and trademark.)  While this is more of a proof of concept than something I expect libraries to adopt in great numbers, I hope it inspires further open sharing of library metadata and standards.

Also, as I did last year, I’m dedicating another year’s worth of copyrights that I can control, this time from 1994, to the public domain, so that they follow the initial 14 year copyright term originally prescribed by this country’s founders.  These copyrights include the first versions of Banned Books Online, and the first database-driven versions of The Online Books Page.  Versions of these resources from 1994 and earlier are now given to the public domain.

I hope readers find value in these, and all the other public domain and freely licensed works they can enjoy and use online. Happy Public Domain Day!

Update: See also the Public Domain Day posts at Creative Commons, and the Center for Internet and Society.

Author: John Mark Ockerbloom

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

3 thoughts on “Public Domain Day 2009: Freeing the libraries”

  1. Hi John, thanks for continuing to post on the importance of the Public Domain to libraries–and the links to other material from Public Domain Day. Also, as the developer behind I want to thank you for highlighting the licensing problem that lurked behind the surface of the service. Hopefully this is going to get ironed out shortly and we’ll see a similar service at

    On the subject of the Free-Decimal-Classification, I wonder would you be interested in me helping put together a SKOS version of it? This would give you the added benefit of having URIs for each classification code, and an explicit machine readable serialization.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ed! I’m glad to hear that LC is considering an – like service, and I hope to hear more news about this before long.

    And you’re also quite welcome to work on a SKOS version of FDC. You might want to wait a bit before doing any manual data conversion, though, since as I mention in the FDC documentation, I’m hoping to have a revised version out shortly that will go into a bit more detail than I had time to do for the January 1 release. (It took more time than I expected to verify codes against current usage.) If you’re planning on developing automated conversions, though, feel free to experiment with the plain-text download; I don’t expect the basic text structure to change in the near term, though the text content will.

    One thing to keep in mind with decimal classifications like FDC is that trying to put all subjects into a single hierarchy, particularly one constrained by the decimal system, is going to produce some pretty arbitrary relationships in some cases. (Subjects have to go somewhere, and concepts don’t all naturally fall into just 10 divisions.) Broader and narrower relationships are sometimes tenuous in LCSH as it is, and that tendency can increase when everything has to fit into a single decimal hierarchy.

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