Public Domain Day 2020: Coming Around Again

I’m very happy for 2020 to be arriving.  As the start of the 2020s, it represents a new decade in which we can have a fresh start, and hope to make better decisions and have better outcomes than some of what we’ve gone through in recent years.  And I’m also excited to have a full year’s worth of copyrighted works entering the public domain in much of the world, including in the US for the second year in a row after a 20-year public domain freeze.

Outside the US, in countries that still use the Berne Convention‘s “life plus 50 years” copyright terms, works by authors who died in 1969 are now in the public domain.  (Such countries include Canada, New Zealand, and a number of other countries mostly in Asia and Africa.)  Many other countries, including most European countries, have extended copyright terms to life of the author(s) plus 70 years, often under pressure from the United States or the European Union.  In those countries, works by authors who died in 1949 are now in the public domain.  The Public Domain Review has a “class of 2020” post featuring some of these authors, along with links to lists of other people who died in the relevant years.

In the US, nearly all remaining copyrights from 1924 have now expired, just as copyrights from 1923 expired at the start of last year.  (The exceptions are sound recordings, which will still be under copyright for a little while longer.   But thanks to recent changes in copyright law, those too will join the public domain soon instead of remaining indefinitely in state copyright.)  I discussed some of the works joining the public domain in a series of blog posts last month, in the last one linking to some posts by others that mentioned new public domain arrivals from 1924.  But I’m happy not just because of these specific works, but also because new arrivals to the US public domain are now an annual event, and not just something that happens with published works at rare intervals.  I could get used to this.

It isn’t all good news this year.  The most recent draft of the intellectual property chapter of the US-Canada-Mexico trade agreement requires Canada to extend its copyrights another 20 years, making it freeze its public domain not long after we’ve unfrozen our own in the US.  But the agreement hasn’t yet been ratified, and could conceivably still be changed or rejected.  And the continued force of copyrights from the second half of the previous ’20s while we’re entering a new set of ’20s is a reminder that US copyright terms remain overlong; so long, in fact, that many works from that era are lost or severely deteriorated before their copyrights expire.

But there’s now an annual checklist of things to do for me and for many other library organizations.  For me, some of the things to do for The Online Books Page include:

  • Updating our documentation on what’s public domain  (done) and on what versions of our site are public domain (also done; as in previous years, I’m dedicating to the public domain works that I wrote whose copyrights I control that are were published more than 14 years ago.  This year that includes the 2005 copyrights to The Online Books Page.)
  • Removing the “no US access” notices from 1924 books I’d linked to at non-US sites, when I couldn’t previously establish that they were public domain here; and removing “US access only” notices for 1879 volumes at HathiTrust, which over the next few days will be making 140-year-old volumes globally accessible without requiring author-death-date review.   (This and other activities below will start tomorrow and continue until done.)
  • Updating our list of first active renewals for serials and our “Determining copyright status of serial issues” decision guide to reflect the expiration of 1924’s copyrights.  As part of this process, I’ll be deleting all the 1924 serial issue and contribution renewals currently recorded in our serials knowledge base, since they’re no longer in force.  If anyone wants to know what they were for historical or other analytical purposes, I have a zipped collection of all our serial renewals records as of the end of 2019, available on request.  They can also be found in the January 1, 2020 commit of this Github directory.
  • Adding newly opened or scanned 1924 books to our listings, through our automated OAI harvests of selected digital collections, readers’ suggestions and requests, surveys of prize winners and other relevant collections, and our own bibliographer selections.

All of this is work I’m glad to be doing this year, and hope to be doing more in the years to come.  (And I’m already streamlining our processes to make it easier to do in years to come.)  Its the job of libraries to collect and preserve works of knowledge and creativity and make them easy for people to discover, access, and use.  It’s also our job to empower our users to draw on those works to make new ones.  As the public domain grows, we can freely collect and widely share more works, and our users can likewise build on and reuse more public domain works in their own creations.

Supporting the public domain, then, is supporting the work and mission of libraries.  I therefore hope that all libraries and their users will support a robust public domain, and have more works to celebrate and work with every year.  Happy Public Domain Day!

 

 

 

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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