Public Domain Day 2017: Keeping memory alive

It’s a bit hard to believe, but there are now adults in the US who cannot remember a substantial Public Domain Day.  In their own lifetimes, copyrights for published works have never expired here.  But I remember when they expired regularly every New Years Day, up until 1998.  And I have hope that in two more years, if our government does not acquiesce to the entertainment industry and extend copyrights yet again, we’ll start seeing published works again regularly enter the public domain here.

There are other things that I don’t remember, or haven’t seen much of myself.  I wasn’t around for the demagogues who whipped up mobs to usher in fascism and persecution in 1930s Europe, nor for the world war that followed that, nor the beginnings of European integration that helped keep the peace afterwards.  I didn’t personally experience the struggles for civil rights and equality of the 1960s and early 1970s, not being born yet, or being too young to take part in them.  I’ve never been to Russia, Turkey, Hungary, or the Philippines, where recent hopes of democratic and liberal reforms have given way to more authoritarian regimes.  I’m not an expert in the science that shows the world dangerously warming in recent years, how humans have caused and will be affected by it, and what we need to do to stop it.

Yes, all of these things are mentioned in history books and various media, but they’re often discussed in superficial ways that don’t reflect the detailed memories and lessons of the people who experienced them firsthand, or who are experts in understanding the issue.  I think that’s part of why I see our societies now making many of the same sorts of mistakes that people who know of these things firsthand could help us avoid.   I think it’s also part of the shock of many of people I know watching the news of the past year.  They didn’t have the personal memories of how prosperous societies can regress just as easily as they can progress, or hadn’t previously noticed how marginalized people experience those societies very differently than our dominant narratives suggest.

Keeping memory alive, and making it known far and wide, is essential if we are going to solve the problems we have today, and avoid the kinds of mistakes and disasters we’ve had in the past.   The more easily we can duplicate and spread that memory, the more likely we are to keep it alive.  That’s why the Internet Archive is making a backup copy in Canada, just in case anything happens to its primary US copy.  That’s why people at Penn and elsewhere are trying to duplicate all the data the government has on climate and other issues before the administration changes, lest it become unavailable or harder to access in the future.  That’s why projects like Wikipedia go out of their way to allow their content to be copied and readily downloadable in bulk, so it can be read and shared in places where the Internet isn’t as reliable or as uncensored as it is in other places.

And that’s one reason why the public domain is so important, and why it’s so important that copyrighted works enter the public domain regularly, automatically, and in a timely fashion.  Copyrights are important to support the people who create works of art and knowledge, and to help ensure that they can introduce them to the world in the form and manner they intend.  But it’s also important that after “limited times” (to quote the US Constitution) the works enter the public domain, so they can be copied, disseminated, reinterpreted and reworked, and remembered, without restriction.  The easier it is to copy and disseminate, the easier it is to remember.

In 2017, we have works by authors who died in 1946 finally entering the public domain in Europe and many other countries.  That now allows us to freely copy the works of those who perished in World War II and shortly thereafter, but not the works of all those who survived and helped rebuild society afterwards.  (Though it at least finally frees works like 1895’s The Time Machine, written by a young H.G. Wells who would live until 1946.)  We’re also seeing works by authors who died in 1966 entering the public domain in Canada and some other countries, freeing the works of people like the anti-fascist poet Andre Breton, as well as C. S. Forester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower.  (You can read about more authors now in the public domain in “life plus 70 years” and “life plus 50 years” countries in the Public Domain Review’s annual roundup.)

In the US, once again, no published works are entering the public domain today on their own accord.  (Works published in 1960 would have, under the copyright law in effect at the time they were published.   Duke has an overview of some of those, as they have for previous years.)  But we may soon be seeing works regularly enter the public domain once again, and there’s still a lot of the present-day public domain that’s not as well-known as it should be.  So there’s a lot we can do now to support the public domain in 2017.  Here’s what I’m planning to do:

  • Keep government accountable for the public domain and sound copyright policy:  The Congress and administration we just elected in the US are the same people who will be in office when 1923’s copyrights are scheduled to finally expire, on January 1, 2019.  I intend to make sure those expire on schedule, by watching for any attempts to extend copyrights further and telling my elected officials to oppose them.  (This has had good effect in other countries recently,  Pushback against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for instance, has so far kept Canada from extending its copyrights another 20 years, as that treaty would have required them to do.)  I also intend to press the government to keep fair use strong, and to keep the Copyright Office administered by the Library of Congress, which will help it be responsive to both creators and consumers, and not just to the entertainment industry.
  • Bring to light the “hidden” public domain of the 20th century:  Many public domain works are now freely readable online, but most of them are from before 1923, when it’s easy to determine public domain status in the US.  HathiTrust has also made available many library books published between 1923 and 1963, whose copyrights have expired because they were never renewed as required.  But there are also a lot of unrenewed public domain newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, photographs, and art and music from this time period that’s in the public domain as well, as well as pamphlets, posters, and underground and amateur publications from as late as 1989 in the public domain.   Unpublished works are also still entering the public domain, including in the US, from authors who died in 1946 or earlier.  All of this material is a crucial part of the memory of the 20th century, especially for more marginalized groups of people, and it’s at more risk of being lost and forgotten than most library books are.  In 2017, I’ll be working on projects that should make it considerably easier for people to clear copyrights for periodical literature in particular,  and thus keep the memories in them alive.
  • Highlight public domain and other open content especially important to remember:  On my Online Books Page, I’ll keep an eye out for books and serials in the public domain that cover topics that seem especially important for people to remember in 2017.  I’ll add them to my catalog with appropriate descriptions and make them more easily findable from places like Google and Wikipedia.  I’ll also be looking for more recent open-licensed content on these topics.  You can help me out with this, by suggesting titles for me to add. Over the past few years, I’ve added thousands of works to my new listings that were suggested by readers, and I’m eager to hear what you think we should be remembering.
  • Add my own work to the public domain:  Like many creators, I’d rather have my work remembered than keep it locked up for 70 years after my death.  So I open-license much of what I put online.  (This post for instance, is licensed CC-BY, so you can copy it as you like as long as you clearly credit that I wrote it and originally published it here on Everybody’s Libraries, and note the CC-BY license.)  And after a suitable period of time, I go further and put my work into the public domain outright.   Today, for instance, I dedicate everything I wrote and published prior to 2003, and whose copyrights I control, to the public domain, via a CC0 dedication.  I’ve made similar declarations in past years as well, inspired by the initial 14-year term that was prescribed by the US’s original copyright law.

It’s especially important in times of uncertainty and danger that we keep our collective memory alive, to help us move forward wisely and joyfully.  The public domain preserves and promotes that memory, and I hope you’ll join me in supporting it in the coming year.