Many people recognise the value of works which are in the public domain and may even be familiar with many initiatives that provide access to public domain works (such as the Internet Archive, Wikimedia Commons, Project Gutenberg, etc). Yet, many people do not have a very clear conception of what the public domain is or why it is important.
New digital technologies make it possible for the public to access a vast quantity of cultural and historical material. Much of this material is in the public domain, and ongoing digitisation efforts mean that much more public domain material (in which copyright has expired) will be made available for the public to enjoy, share, and reuse.
However, it is often difficult to determine whether a work has entered the public domain in any given jurisdiction, because the terms of copyright protection differ from country to country. And people are sometimes unclear about what can or cannot be done with works in the public domain. Copyright laws are complicated, and for the layperson it may not be clear how they apply in relation to a specific work. Though there are many international and multinational copyright agreements and copyright organisations, the exact details of copyright law vary from one country to another. Different countries have different legal systems and traditions – and copyright laws reflect these differences. Hence, given that works enter the public domain under different circumstances depending on the country, oftentimes the status of an individual work cannot be universally established. Rather, it needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for every jurisdiction.
In order to make public domain determinations a less daunting task, the Open Knowledge Foundation has been working on the development of the Public Domain Calculators (http://publicdomain.okfn.org/calculators/) – a tool that enables people to determine the copyright status of a work (in the public domain, or not), thus helping users realize the value of artworks from the past.
Last week the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) concluded two new agreements with private companies to digitze over 70.000 old books, 200.000 sound recordings and other documents belonging (either partially or as a whole) to the public domain. While these public private partnerships enable the digitization of these works they also contain 10-year exclusive agreements allowing the private companies carrying out the digitization to commercialize the digitized documents. During this period only a limited number of these works may be offered online by the BnF.
Photo by Scarlet Green (CC-BY)
Together with La Quadrature du Net, Framasoft, SavoirsCom1 and the Open Knowledge Foundation France COMMUNIA has issued a statement (in french) to express our profound disagreement with the terms of these partnerships that restrict digital access to an important part of Europe’s cultural heritage. The agreements that the BnF has entered into, effectively take the works being digitized out of the public domain for the next 10 years.
The value of the public domain lies in the free dissemination of knowledge and the ability for everyone to access and create new works based on previous works. Yet, instead of taking advantage of the opportunities offered by digitization, the exclusivity of these agreements will force public bodies, such as research institutions or university libraries, to purchase digital content that belongs to the common cultural heritage.
As such, these partnerships constitute a commodification of the public domain by contractual means. COMMUNIA has been critical of such arrangements from the start (see our Public Domain Manifesto) and our Policy Reccomendations 4 & 5. More interestingly these agreements are also in direct contradiction with the Public Domain Charter published by the Europeana Foundation in 2011. In this context it is interesting to note that the director of Bibliothèque nationale de France currently serves as the chairman of the Europeana Foundation’s Executive Board.
On this day, 1st of January 2013, we do not only celebrate the beginning of a new year, but we also celebrate the whole variety of works, knowledge and information that, by entering the public domain, have become freely available to the world.
Given the limited term of protection granted by copyright law, a large number of works – whose authors died several decades ago – can no longer be owned by anyone and their use can no longer be constrained. They have become part of the common pool of knowledge that constitutes our cultural heritage and that can be freely used by everyone and for any purpose.
Following the trend established by the Communia Thematic Network, we celebrated Public Domain Day in Paris on the 26th of January with an event organised by the Communia Association, Wikimedia France, Creative Commons France, the CNRS Institute for Communication Sciences and the Open Knowledge Foundation.
What unites all these organisations is that they share the common goal of encouraging the dissemination of knowledge and information, including – but not limited to – works that are in the public domain.
After an introduction by Adrienne Alix (Wikimedia France) and Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay (ISCC/Communia), the event started with a screening of Georges Méliès’ science fiction movie “A Trip to the Moon” from 1902. This was followed by a presentation of works that entered the public domain on January 1st 2012. A list was created by sorting the entries of Wikipedia according to the authors’ deaths and is available at the following address. The list includes famous French authors such as Maurice Leblanc (Arsene Lupin), as well as the painter Robert Delaunay. It also includes internationally renowned authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, to name a few.
After the initial celebration, Lionel Maurel (Bibliothèque Nationale de France) and Primavera De Filippi (Open Knowledge Foundation) went on to illustrate the role of open bibliographic metadata in its relation with the public domain. While accurate and precise metadata is necessary for the purpose of identifying works that have fallen in the public domain, it is often difficult for libraries and other cultural institutions to provide all necessary information to properly determine the legal status of a work. This also was the occasion to present the Public Domain Calculators of the OKF and the challenges that must be addressed as a result of the complexities of French copyright law. Continue reading