Public Domain Day 2018: The 20-year alarm clock

In Washington Irving’s classic story “Rip van Winkle“, the title character follows an archaically-dressed stranger into a mountain hideaway, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the world has moved on 20 years without him.  He’s alarmed at first, but eventually figures out what has happened, adapts, and settles into the social fabric of his much-changed town.

We in the US are experiencing a similar phenomenon this Public Domain Day.  It’s now been 20 years since a full year’s worth of published content entered the public domain, when 1922 copyrights expired at the start of 1998.  Later that year, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, and the advance of the public domain has been stuck in the Warren G. Harding administration ever since.

Other countries are doing somewhat better.  Most European countries have by now regained the 20 years of public domain many of them lost when they complied with the EU Copyright Duration Directive, and they now get to freely share the works of creators who died in 1947– people like Baroness Orczy, Alfred North Whitehead, Pierre Bonnard, and Willa Cather.  (We in the US get any unpublished works by people in this group, but that’s all that’s entering the public domain here today.)  Countries like Canada that kept to the Berne Convention’s “life plus 50 years” terms are doing substantially better– today they get the works of creators who died in 1967, including Carson McCullers, Arthur Ransome, Woody Guthrie, René Magritte, and Dorothy Parker.  (The Public Domain Review’s Class of 2018 article has writeups of some these authors, and others.)

This time next year, though, the US may well get to join the party in a bigger way, and have all copyrighted 1923 publications finally enter the public domain.  It’s not a sure thing, though– lobbyists for the entertainment industry have long pressed Congress for longer copyright terms, and while there’s no bill I’m aware of that’s been introduced to do it next year, that doesn’t mean that one couldn’t be quickly rammed through.  So it’s a good time for you to let your elected representatives know that you value a robust public domain, and want no further copyright extensions.  (And if you’re hoping to elect someone new in 2018, let your candidates know this matters to you as well.)

There are other ways that those of us in the US can prepare Public Domain Wake-Up party next year.  Some of us are continuing to bring the “hidden public domain” to light over the next year.  Researchers with HathiTrust’s Copyright Review Management System have by now found over 300,000 books and other monographs that are non-obviously in the public domain.  (You may be able to help them!)  The project I’m leading to help identify public domain serial content past 1922 is also underway, and should be complete later this year.  (See an earlier post for some ways you can help with that if you like.)

Other folks are working on another set of works that libraries in the US can now share– certain works in the last 20 years of copyright, which as of today span a full 20 years of publication, from 1923 to 1942.  A provision in the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, codified in Section 108(h) of US copyright law, allows non-profit libraries and archives to digitally display and distribute such works when they are not being commercially exploited, and copies are not available at a reasonable price.  Libraries have not made much explicit use of this provision until recently, partly due to uncertainty about when and how it applies.  A preprint article by Elizabeth Townsend Gard aims to clear up this uncertainty and spur libraries to make these works more widely available.  I hope that this work is further developed and applied in the coming year.  (And I’m happy to consider works in these last 20 years of copyright for inclusion in The Online Books Page‘s listings, when the libraries that have digital copies make it clear that they’re following the section 108(h) guidelines.)

I also hope some folks take some time this year to take a good look at what we’ve digitized from 1922, and compare it to what was copyrighted that year in the US.  What portion of 1922’s creative output have we brought to light online?   What sorts of works, and what people, have we tended to miss?  Knowing where the gaps are can tell us what we might want to focus on bringing to light from 1923.  Some of that material can be posted online now; hopefully the rest can be posted starting next January.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to wait for copyrights to expire on their own to share work whose copyright you control.  You can open-license them any time you like (this post, along with many of my other works, is CC-BY licensed, for instance).  And you can let them go entirely if you like.  I tend to put my works into the public domain 14 years after publication, following the original copyright term of the US, if I see no need to extend it further.  Today I do that again, and with this post you can consider anything I published in 2003, whose copyright I still control, to have a CC0 dedication to the public domain.

Happy Public Domain Day to everyone who’s seeing new works in the public domain where they are.  And here’s to waking up to lots of new additions to the public domain in the US a year from now.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.
This entry was posted in copyright, online books, open access, serials, sharing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Public Domain Day 2018: The 20-year alarm clock

  1. I always enjoy these articles, John. Looks like next year will be a biggie!

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