Every January a growing number of people throughout the world gathers to celebrate the new year. But not for the usual reasons. They meet because every January 1st the works of authors who had died decades before – typically, seventy years before – enter the public domain, that is, their copyright protection expires. Why a celebration for such an apparently technical reason? Because as the new years starts, the works of those selected authors have finally reached the state to which all culture is headed since the earliest times. I am talking of the state that automatically allows any human being to sing, play, translate, summarize, adapt what other human beings have thought before them. Wish to produce a big print edition of your favorite poetry? Now you can. Fancy to translate into Sicilian dialect a play you love? Now you can. Possessed by the desire to illustrate, manga style, the ideas of your preferred political scientist? Now you can. Longing to publish a more correct version of a score riddled with typos that the publisher never cared to correct? Now you can.
In principle, all the above activities are perfectly possible even before the expiration of copyright. On condition, however, that one asks for permission the copyright owner (assuming that it can be located: let’s ignore here the huge problem of the so-called “orphan works”) and pays whatever is requested. Noting that very often the copyright owner is not the author (or his/her descendants), but a for-profit publishing house.
Consequently, many activities do not take place because either the copyright owner does not like the idea (no manga, for instance), or because the wannabe new author cannot afford to pay what is requested by the copyright owner.
Such restrictions, introduced, in their modern form, about three centuries ago to provide – for the common good – incentives to authors, now last an unprecedented seventy years (in Europe and in many other countries) after the death of the authors.
A shockingly long time, that an increasing number of scholars, NGO’s (among them the COMMUNIA association) and citizens are asking to reduce. To know more about the current debate on copyright reform and the role of the public domain, see for instance the Public Domain Manifesto, or check out the OKF’s Working Group on the Public Domain.
But as we work towards copyright reform, every January people who care about the public domain get together and welcome the works of a new batch of authors. In recent years, public domain day celebrations have taken place in cities throughout the world, from Zurich to Warsaw, from Torino to Haifa, from Rome to Berlin. The volunteer-staffed website publicdomainday.org provides an information hub for such celebrations.
The celebrations typically take place in libraries, universities or cafés. People read – or sometimes perform – the work of the new authors. It is often a moving experience, as great men and women from the time of our grand (and grand-grand) fathers come back to life under our affectionate gaze.
During the month of January 2012 people will gather again. Celebrations have already been announced in, among other places, Warsaw, Zurich, Torino and Rome. We hope that others will follow the example. Welcoming the works of some of our great writers, musicians, painters, poets, journalists, scholars is a most gratifying way to start the new year and also a great way to enhance the knowledge of our common cultural roots.