Looking back, I see that I wasn’t blogging this time last year, and that’s a shame, because that’s the first time i would have been able to wish you a Happy Public Domain Day instead of an (Un)Happy one as had become the annual tradition around here. Why? Because last year was the first in far, far too long that new items were actually allowed to enter the Public Domain here in the U.S.
Why it’s almost enough to make me want to revive my old blog, Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest.
But not quite.
I do have some ideas about what to do with some of that material and research, but that will have to wait for another time. Today we’re here to celebrate!
So what is Public Domain Day? well, as of last year, it the day that we celebrate new works actually entering the Public Domain. Of course, it’s still only a partial celebration, since, up until the copyright law was changes in 1978 and subsequently, most of the items we’re celebrating today would have become your property much, much earlier, and there is a treasure trove of material that should be available that won’t be for years to come. As a matter of fact, the ones that would have been released before those changes won’t actually become part of the common weal until 2058. Again, though, that only applies to the U.S. Other countries have other laws regarding copyright and the Public Domain, so depending on where you’re reading this from, you may have more or less reason to celebrate.
So wait… I keep using this term “Public Domain”, but what exactly is the Public Domain, and what does it mean if a work is part of it? Well, to quote the Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain
The public domain is the realm of material — ideas, images, sounds, discoveries, facts, texts — that is unprotected by intellectual property rights and free for all to use or build upon. It includes our collective cultural and scientific heritage, and the raw materials for future expression, research, democratic dialogue and education.
To take that a little further,
Public domain material is “free” as in “free speech,” not “free” as in “free beer” — because it is unprotected by intellectual property rights, it is free of centralized control as a legal matter, and you can use it without having to get permission. But we hope that in many cases it would also be available at little or no cost. So for example, the works of Charles Dickens are in the public domain even though they are still for sale, but if you love A Tale of Two Cities you can freely translate it, make it into a movie, or turn it into a present-day tale of two cities without permission. Conversely, many copyrighted works may be available free of cost online, but because they are copyrighted you would need permission before translating or selling or adapting them.
Okay, all of that is fine, I hear you say, but how can I actually use material that’s in the Public Domain?, Well…
Below are only a few examples of activities enabled by a robust public domain… Artists of all kinds — writers, musicians, filmmakers, painters — rely on the public domain: “Poetry can only be made out of other poems, novels out of other novels,” as the critic Northrop Frye put it. Creators draw on previous works, and on the cultural artifacts around them; they remix vintage footage with new clips, turn books into plays and musicals, borrow lyrics and melodies from old songs, adapt classic stories to present day circumstances. For example, you or your children may have been transfixed by Disney’s beloved versions of Cinderella, Snow White, Pinocchio, and The Little Mermaid, which are based on public domain works by Charles Perrault, The Brothers Grimm, Carlo Collodi, and Hans Christian Anderson….
Libraries, museums, historians, archivists, teachers, filmmakers, publishers, and database creators rely on the public domain to collect, preserve, and teach us about our past. Anyone can freely restore and digitize works published in 1924 and before, but far too many projects have had to abandon older works because of the extraordinarily long copyright term. Libraries avoid digitizing important resources, archives and databases are incomplete, important historical images are redacted from documentaries, museums cannot publish or digitize millions of pages of archival documents, photographs, oral histories, and reels of film (as the US Copyright Office has explained), all because the copyright ownership of these orphan works cannot be determined…
The case of film preservation is particularly troubling because older films are literally disintegrating, soon to be lost forever. The overwhelming majority of our cinematic heritage consists of orphan films — they are covered by copyright but have no ascertainable copyright owner. They include newsreels, documentaries, anthropological films, portraits of minority life in the United States, instructional films, and even some Hollywood studio productions. Because copyright law prevents scholars and citizens from using these orphan films (including copying and restoring them for preservation), the existing copies are actually disintegrating….
So after all that, what is actually entering the Public Domain today? Well, here are just a few examples:
- Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator
- Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy and Hot Water
- The first film adaptation of Peter Pan
- The Sea Hawk
- He Who Gets Slapped
- Dante’s Inferno
- Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
- E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
- Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not… (the first volume of his “Parade’s End” tetralogy)
- Eugene O’Neill, Desire Under the Elms
- Edith Wharton, Old New York (four novellas)
- Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (the English translation by Gregory Zilboorg)
- A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young
- Hugh Lofting, Doctor Dolittle’s Circus
- Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Ant Men
- Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit
- Lord Dunsany (Edward Plunkett), The King of Elfland’s Daughter
- Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin
- Fascinating Rhythm and Oh, Lady Be Good, music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin
- Lazy, Irving Berlin
- Jealous Hearted Blues, Cora “Lovie” Austin (composer, pianist, bandleader) (recorded by Ma Rainey)
- Santa Claus Blues, Charley Straight and Gus Kahn (recorded by Louis Armstrong)
- Nobody’s Sweetheart, music Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, lyrics Gus Kahn and Ernie Erdman
And so, so, much more. All of which is great, and cause to celebrate. But when you look at what might have been before the changes in the law, well, I’ll quote one last time:
…under the laws that were in effect until 1978, thousands of works from 1963 would be entering the public domain this year. They range from the books The Fire Next Time and Where the Wild Things Are, to the film The Birds and the albums and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and much more. Have a look at some of the others. In fact, since copyright used to come in renewable terms of 28 years, and 85% of authors did not renew, 85% of the works from 1991 might be entering the public domain! Imagine what the great libraries of the world—or just internet hobbyists—could do: digitizing those holdings, making them available for education and research, for pleasure and for creative reuse.
Anyway, let’s be positive and grateful today that we’re finally getting something, and that congress didn’t change the laws again just to make sure that the giant corporations that either control so much of our media or make it nearly impossible to work with what we do have could maintain mastery over this, too.
And with that, I’ll wish you a Happy Public Domain Day, and also a very, very Happy New Year!