Happy Public Domain Day … Unless You Live in the U.S.
January 2, 2013 | 10:56 am
By Joanna Cabot
Most days, us Canadians get the e-book shaft. Barnes & Noble won’t sell to us. Amazon will, but at higher prices and with less selection. We’re the forgotten child of the e-book world—with the exception of January 1, aka New Year’s Day, aka Public Domain Day, when countries that calculate the length of an author’s copyright based on the year an artist dies get access to a whole bunch of new entrants.
Here in Canada, a glorious (for now) life + 50 land, authors whose death occurred in 1963 are now part of the public domain. In Australia and other life + 70 countries, 1943 is the magic year. And in the United States? Thanks to Walt Disney and Sonny Bono and the Copyright Extension Act you get nothing.
I find this horrifying. I am all for content creators getting fair compensation for their work, but I don’t think their copyright over it should last forever, and here’s why: No work of creativity is created in a vacuum. Authors and artists always draw, even if it’s only subconsciously, on works that came before. And in the case of Disney, he did so overtly. The story of Cinderella was in the public domain. So was the story of the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. So, if Disney was allowed to draw upon the work of others, why should others not be allowed to draw upon his work someday? Why should Disney’s hunchback film not (eventually, not right now) enter into the public domain the same way Victor Hugo’s novel did?
The concept of the public domain, as it was conceived originally, was two-fold. It was designed to protect authors, but it was also designed to encourage the creation of new works. If you knew your exclusive right over something would expire someday (as it should, since it was more of a group effort than you might consciously think), you would be inspired to create new works. And also, it was designed to serve the public interest by making sure that humanity had a common pool of culture they could draw upon. The Disney Company didn’t need the long-dead Hugo’s permission to make their hunchback movie. And on a smaller scale, we should be able to teach our children about the myths, fables and enduring literatures of their culture without paying the great-great-great grandson of a content creator who has been dead for a lifetime.
Here in Canada, we seem to be holding the line on life + 50 right now. Other countries have bowed to American pressures and seen that go up to life + 70, but even those countries are sticking firm to the underlying principle of life plus something, and then no more.That’s as it should be. Lucy Maud Montgomery, who just entered the public domain in life + 70 countries, died in 1942. Whom are we protecting by keeping her out of the public domain in the United States? What possible interest is being served by that?
I guess Americans are stuck with this copyright extension act for the time being, but I hope that when it comes up for review, lawmakers there think beyond the corporate self-interest of one company and return to a more balanced and equitable use of creative properties where, for a time—even a long time—the author and their heirs can profit as they should. But then the work should enter the public domain to be used and enjoyed by the culture that helped to create it.
Note: To learn more about the public domain, read Professor James Boyle’s book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2008) — the full text is available for free here.