The Importance Of Public Domain Works

In many countries, January 1st marks a new year’s worth of works being welcomed into the public domain.

Countries that use the copyright terms specified by the Berne Convention bring works into the public domain on the 1st of January  that are more than 50 years after the death of their authors.  Therefore, in these countries, most works by authors who died in 1958 joined the public domain a few days ago.  Some of the  notable names include James Branch Cabell, Rachel Crothers, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, C. M. Kornbluth, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Robert W. Service, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

However, many countries have extended their copyright terms in recent years.  For example, most European Union countries took 20 years worth of works out of the public domain in the 1990s when the EU mandated that copyright terms be extended to run for the life of the author plus 70 years.  This year, they come a little bit closer to recovering their lost public domain, welcoming back works by authors who died in 1938, including people like Karel Capek, Zona Gale, Georges Melies, Constantin Stanislavsky, Osip Mandelstam, Owen Wister, and Thomas Wolfe.

Another problem is that some  countries allow very little to enter the public domain today. In the U.S., we’re midway through a freeze on most copyright expirations, resulting from a term extension enacted in 1998.  We now have 10 years to go until copyrights on published works start expiring again due to age.  

Even though few works are entering the public domain in the US today, many more works are now freely and easily available to the public today than a year ago.  Much of this is because of initiatives like Google Books and the Open Content Alliance, which are digitizing books and other works that libraries have acquired and preserved.  Many of the digitized works are in the public domain, and these projects have been making them freely readable and downloadable when they can confirm their public domain status.  And now that Google has negotiated a settlement with book publisher and author groups,  they plan to be more proactive about identifying and releasing public domain works, including works published after 1922 that are out of copyright (but are not so easy identified as public domain as older books are).

These works have been part of the public domain for years, but when they were simply sitting on the shelves of a few research libraries, they were not doing the public much good.  Once they’re digitized and their digitizations and descriptions are shared online, they can be much more easily found, read, adapted, and reused by anyone online.  By opening  public domain expression that libraries have preserved, we magnify its value. Proponents of public domain argue that when libraries share their intellectual endowment, they better fulfill their mission to bring art and knowledge to readers, and make it easy for readers to learn, build on, and be enriched by this knowledge.

Often libraries and affiliated organizations have been resistant  to share the information they compile and control. As a result, the effective value of what libraries offer has been significantly diminished.

Other times, libraries have been slow to share information. The Copyright Office has long provided online access to copyright records, but only from 1978 onward. As a result, many older records have not yet been publicly digitized, though they’re available in printed form in many government depository libraries.  These records can make it much easier to verify public domain status of many works, and then make them available to the public.

Sometimes libraries and affiliated organizations even put up their own restrictions on sharing information they already have in digital form.  In December of 2008, an extremely useful downloadable semantic web representation of Library of Congress subject headings – the basis for information discovery applications like this one – was ordered taken down by LC administrators.

Those  who value the public domain will need to ensure that it is not further eroded, and that copyrights are allowed to expire on schedule.


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