Happy Public Domain Day

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.

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The Little Prince and the Public Domain

so it’s the time of the year again where lists of authors who’s works will enter into the public domain on the 1st of january are compiled left and right. Generally these efforts work like this: you start a list of authors who have died in in the year ending 70 years ago (1942) and then compile them into a list and rank them by whatever criterion you wish to apply (notability, specific nationality, etc..).

While this seems rather straightforward it seems like a good opportunity to recall the underlying complexities of calculating copyright term duration: If you have a fast internet connection and a big screen, you may want to take a look at this 25 MB pdf, which depicts the decision trees for 30 european jurisdictions that power the public domain calculators on www.outofcopyright.eu.

The interesting thing about this PDF is not how complex it is in absolute terms, but rather that the subject matter depicted is supposed is something that the EU considers to be ‘harmonized’ (by the 2006 copyright term directive). As you can easily tell by glancing at the image above, copyright duration in the EU is anything but harmonised. In fact, as Christiana Angelopoulos, who compiled the information contained in the pdf, argues in a new paper, we are dealing with 27 different public domains for the 27 member states of the EU. Continue reading

The hangover after Public Domain Day…

This post by Lucie Guibault was first published on the Kluwer Copyright Blog and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

The New Year’s festivities are just behind us and with these the celebrations around Public Domain Day 2012 that took place in different cities in and outside Europe (Warsaw, Zurich, Turin, Rome, Haifa etc.).

2012 brings with it the joy of using James Joyce’s masterpieces without asking the estate for prior authorization (which more often than not met with a ‘no’ for an answer!). No one needs to be afraid of using the works of Virginia Woolf any longer! And the fans of Arsène Lupin, the French ‘gentleman burglar’, are now able to borrow – for good! – the ideas of its author, Maurice Leblanc. The works of several music composers are also free for reuse, including those of Frank Bridge and Johan Wagenaar.

The Public Domain Day IS important and SHOULD be celebrated annually, for it gives us the occasion to reflect on the significance of works of past authors and to measure the wealth of our common knowledge and culture. But unlike the New Year’s celebrations, however, those of the Public Domain Day do not attract much attention among the general public. Festivities of this sort are usually low-key, taking place in libraries, universities or cafés and gathering only the selected few of the well informed and culturally savvy.

Any cramped optimism concerning the public domain is further discouraged by the fact that the term of protection for copyright and related rights is 1) highly unharmonized across jurisdictions and 2) still being strechted beyond recognition through constant legislative action.

As an illustration of the first point, let me mention the case of world famous writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) whose works have fallen into the public domain two days ago in Canada, but neither in his home country, the United States, or in Europe, where copyright lasts for the life of the author + 70 years.

In Europe, the calculation of the term of protection for copyright and related rights is rendered particularly complex due to the lack of proper harmonisation of the governing rules in EU jurisdictions. Although the adoption of the EC Term Directive was an attempt to alleviate disparities between the Member States, harmonisation gaps persist. As a result, the composition of the public domain will differ depending on the country in which protection is sought, as works fall out of copyright on different dates in different EU jurisdictions. This effect is illustrated in the Public Domain Calculators by the need for separate calculators, giving upon occasion very different results, for each of the 30 jurisdictions covered, including the 27, ostensibly harmonised, EU Member States.

In relation to the second point, 2012 will inevitably see the first pieces of national legislation emerge in the EU Member States towards the implementation of Directive 2011/77/EU amending Directive 2006/116/EC on the term of protection of copyright and certain related rights. Through this statutory amendment only sound recordings published or communicated to the public before 1941 will be free for use. In practical terms, this means that none, not even the early recordings, of Maria Callas will be available for re-use without prior authorization of the record company holding the rights.

Finally, the march towards term extension does not seem to have reached its limit if one only takes a look at the clauses contained in bilateral and mulilateral trade agreements currently negotiated by the United States. Article 4.5 of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, would bring the copyright term of protection of signatory countries up to the American (and European) level, as has been the case in the past in the context of bilateral agreements (with Australia and many countries of Central and South America, to name but these).

These are very sobering thoughts indeed! If the alcohol fumes of the New Year’s party still had any effect, one could even be tempted, for simplicity’s sake, to just make copyright protection perpetual…

Coming up: Public Domain Day 2012

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.

Public Domain Day 2012In 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.

Public Domain Day 2012

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 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.

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.

Europeana Publishes Public Domain Calculator

Works that have fallen into the public domain after their term of copyright protection has elapsed can be freely used by everybody. In theory that means that these works can be reused by anyone for any purpose which includes commercial exploitation. In theory the public domain status increases access to our shared knowledge and culture and encourages economic activities that do not take place as long as works are protected by copyright. In turn the commercial exploitation of public domain works (for example out of copyright books) has the tendency to increase their accessibility.

In practice, however, determining whether a work has passed into the public domain can prove very difficult. This is especially true when attempting to determine the public domain status of content in multiple jurisdictions. As part of the EuropeanaConnect project, Knowledgeland and the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam have developed public domain calculators to determine whether a certain work or other subject matter vested with copyright or neighbouring rights (related rights) has fallen into the public domain. These public domain calculators have been developed for 30 countries (the European Union plus Switzerland, Iceland & Norway) and are available at www.outofcopyright.eu.

Users can use the calculators (and the underlying research published at outofcopyright.eu) to determine the copyright status of works in all these countries. This is the first time that this question has been structurally researched across all European jurisdictions.

The results of this research of national copyright laws show a complex semi-harmonized field of legislation across Europe that makes it unnecessarily difficult to unlock the cultural, social, and economic potential of works in the public domain. Identification of works as being in the public domain needs be made easier and less resource consuming by simplifying and harmonizing rules of copyright duration and territoriality.

Outofcopyright continues to adjust and refine its calculators. It is also researching how to make calculation possible using large datasets like bibliographica, DBPedia, and the Europeana datasets on cultural objects in Europe.

We encourage everyone interested in the public domain to try the calculators, comment on them and re-use the published research. All research and other material on Outofcopyright is available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license and the software powering the calculators can be reused under the terms of the EUPL license.