Public Domain Day 2013: or, There and Back Again

The first day of the new year is Public Domain Day, when many countries celebrate a year’s worth of copyrights expiring, and the associated works become freely available for anyone to share and adapt.  As the Public Domain Day page at Duke’s Center for the Public Domain notes, the United States once again does not have much to celebrate.  Except for unpublished works by authors who died in 1942, no copyrights expire in the US today.  Under current law, Americans still have to wait 6 more years before any more copyrights of published works will expire.  (Subsisting copyrights from 1923 are scheduled to finally enter the public domain at the start of 2019.)

The start of 2013 is more significant in Europe, where the Open Knowledge Foundation has a more upbeat Public Domain Day site featuring authors who died in 1942, and whose published works enter the public domain today in most of the European Union. But that isn’t actually breaking new ground in most of Europe, because 2013 is also the 20th anniversary of the 1993 European Union Copyright Duration Directive, which required European countries to retroactively extend their copyright terms from the Berne Convention‘s “life of the author plus 50 years” to “life of the author plus 70 years”, and put 20 years’ worth of public domain works back into copyright in those countries.

For countries that used the Berne Convention’s term and implemented the directive right away, today marks the day that the public domain finally returns to its maximum extent of 20 years ago.  Only next year will Europe start seeing truly new public domain works.  (And since many European countries took a couple of years or more to implement the directive– the UK implemented it at the start of 1996, for instance– it may still be a few years yet before their public domain is back again to what it once was.)

At least the last US copyright extension, in 1998, only froze the public domain, without rolling it back.  If the US had not passed that extension, we would be seeing works published in 1937, such as the first edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, now entering the public domain.  (If the US hadn’t made any post-publication extensions, we’d also have the more familiar revision of The Hobbit, in which Gollum does not voluntarily give Bilbo the Ring, in the public domain now as well, along with all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.)   Folks in Canada and other “life+50 years” countries, now celebrating the public domain status of works by authors who died in 1962, may be able to freely share and adapt Tolkien’s works in another 11 years.  Folks in Europe and the US who’d like to see a variety of visual adaptations, though, will have to content themselves with the estate-licensed Peter Jackson and Rankin/Bass adaptations for a while to come.

But there are still things Americans can do to make today meaningful.  For the last few years, I’ve been releasing copyrights I control into the public domain after 14 years (the original term of copyright set by the country’s founders, with an option to renew for another 14).  So today, I dedicate all such copyrights for works I published in 1998 to the public domain.  This includes my computer science doctoral dissertation, Mediating Among Diverse Data Formats.  If I believed a recent fearmongering statement from certain British journal editors, I should be worried about plagiarism resulting from this dedication, which doesn’t even have the legal attribution requirement of the CC-BY license they decry.  But as I’ve explained in a previous post on plagiarism, plagiarism is fundamentally an ethical rather than a legal matter, and scholars can no more get away with plagiarizing public domain material than they can with copyrighted material.   Both are and should be a career-killer in academia.

I’ll also continue to feature “new” public domain works from around the world on The Online Books Page.  Starting today, for instance, I’ll be listing works featured in The Public Domain Review, a wonderful ongoing showcase of public domain works inaugurated by the Open Knowledge Foundation on Public Domain Day 2011.  I’ll also be continuing to add listings from Project Gutenberg Canada and other sites in “life+50 years” countries, as well as other titles suggested by my readers.

Finally, I’ll be keeping a close eye on Congress’s actions on copyright.  In this past year, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could take works out of the public domain, meaning that the public domain in the US is now under threat of shrinking, and not just freezing.  And the power of the copyright lobby was evident this year when a Republican Study Committee memo recommending copyright reform (including shorter terms) was yanked within 24 hours of its posting, and its author then fired.  On the other hand, 2012 also saw one of the largest online protests in history stop a copyright lobby-backed Internet censorship bill in its tracks.  If the public shows that it cares as much about the public domain as about bills like SOPA, we could have a growing public domain back again before long, instead of works going back again into copyright.

Author: John Mark Ockerbloom

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

4 thoughts on “Public Domain Day 2013: or, There and Back Again”

  1. It’s not entirely true that only unpublished works are going into the PD in the US; works published since 2002 are life+70, too.

  2. Amazing. I wasn’t aware that there is a day like Public Domain Day. I don’t understand why do authors copyright the content when they really write it for public.

  3. Authors copyright their works because they like to eat. If they had no right to enforce that copiers had to pay them, a lot of people and companies wouldn’t. I’m not knocking buskers-style funding and the like, but at the current time the simpliest method with the longest history of success is to copyright your work and force people to pay to copy it.

  4. I agree that writers/authors need to eat, but they don’t need to eat after they are dead. 70 years or life + 20 years, which ever is shorter was a much better system allowing the public to enjoy the works of previous generations while allowing the heirs of the deceased to enjoy some profit from their parents/grandparents work. Life + 70 years is all about corporate greed (think Disney Inc., post Walt’s death and the like) and they want to push is to life + 95. Eventually, corporation would simply like to make copyrights perpetual.

    I oppose corporate “person-hood” because they are not born and never die.

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