As we celebrate the beginning of the New Year, we also mark Public Domain Day (a holiday I’ve been regularly celebrating on this blog.) This is the day when a year’s worth of copyrights expire in many countries around the world, and the works they cover become free for anyone to use and adapt for any purpose.
In many counties, this is a bittersweet time for fans of the public domain. For instance, this site notes the many authors whose works enter the public domain today in Europe, now that they’ve been dead for at least 70 years. But for many European countries, this just represents reclaimed ground that had been previously lost. Europe retroactively extended and revived copyrights from life+50 to life+70 years in 1993, so it’s still three more years before Europe’s public domain is back to what it was then. Many other countries, including the United States, Australia, Russia, and Mexico, are in the midst of public domain freezes. For instance, due to a 1998 copyright extension, no copyrights of published works will expire here in the US due to age for another 9 years, at least.
In the past, many people have had only a vague idea of what’s in the public domain and what isn’t. But thanks to mass book digitization projects, the dividing line is becoming clearer. Millions of books published before 1923 (the year of the oldest US copyrights) are now digitized, and can be found with a simple Google search and read in full online. At the same time, millions more digitized books from 1923 and later can also be found with searches, but are not freely readable online.
Many of those works not freely readable online have languished in obscurity for a long time. Some of them can be shown to be in the public domain after research, and groups like Hathi Trust are starting to clear and rescue many such works. Some of them are still under copyright, but long out of print, and may have unknown or unreachable rightsholders. The current debate over Google Books has raised the profile of these works, so much so that the New York Times cited “orphan books”, a term used to describe such unclearable works, as one of the buzzwords of 2009.
The dividing line between the public domain and the world of copyright could well have been different. In 1953, for instance, US copyrights ran for a maximum of 56 years, and the last of that year’s copyrights would have expired today, were it not for extensions. Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain has a page showing what could have been entering the public domain today— everything up to the close of the Korean War. In contrast, if the current 95-year US terms had been in effect all of last century, the copyrights of 1914 would have only expired today. Only now would we be able to start freely digitizing the first set of books from the start of World War I.
With the dividing line better known nowadays, do we have hope of protecting the public domain against more expansions of copyright? Many countries still stick to the life+50 years term of the Berne Convention, including Canada and New Zealand. In those countries, works from authors who died in 1959 enter the public domain for the first time. There’s pressure on some of these countries to increase their terms, so far resisted. Efforts to extend copyrights on sound recordings continues in Europe, and recently succeeded in Argentina. And secret ACTA treaty negotiations are also aimed at increasing the power of copyright holders over Internet and computer users.
But resistance to these expansions of copyright is on the rise, and public awareness of copyright extensions and their deleterious effects is quite a bit higher now than when Europe and the US extended their copyrights in the 1990s. And with concerns expressed by a number of parties over a possible Google monopoly on orphan books, one can envision building up a critical mass of interest in freeing more of these books for all to use.
So today I celebrate the incremental expansion of the public domain, and hope to help increase it further. To that end, I have a few gifts of my own. As in previous years, I’m freeing all the copyrights I control for publications (including public online postings) that are more than 14 years old today, so any such works published in 1995 and before are now dedicated to the public domain. Unfortunately, I don’t control the copyright of the 1995 paper that is my most widely cited work, but at least there’s an early version openly accessible online.
I can also announce the completion of a full set of digitized active copyright renewal records for drama and works prepared for oral delivery, available from this page. This should make it easier for people to verify the public domain status of plays, sermons, lectures, radio programs, and similar works from the mid-20th century that to date have not been clearable using online resources. We’ve also put online many copyright renewal records for images, and hope to have a complete set of active records not too far into 2010. Among other things, this will help enable the full digitization of book illustrations, newspaper photographs, and other important parts of the historical record that might be otherwise omitted or skipped by some mass digitization projects.
Happy Public Domain Day! May we have much to enjoy this day, and on many more Public Domain Days to come.
(Edited later in the day January 1 to fix an inaccurately worded sentence.)