For many individuals, a new year represents a fresh start. January 1st also signifies a new beginning for numerous creative and scholarly works around the world. Public Domain Day commemorates the occasion as copyright expires for a new batch of works and ushers them into the public domain. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson by beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter is just one of the items entering the public domain in 2014 for many countries.
This is indeed cause for celebration. Once a work enters the public domain, anyone may freely copy, distribute, adapt, remix, translate or otherwise use the material without permission or other limitations. The annual influx of public domain material results in a trove of restriction-free source material for artists, writers, musicians, and other creators. Jane Austen’s novels, for example, are all in the public domain and have been adapted numerous times for film and television.
‘Public domain’ may be a familiar term, but misconceptions abound regarding its true meaning. For instance, works that are widely available to the public, such as images, videos, and text on the Web, are not necessarily also in the public domain.
In the United States, copyright protection extends instantly and automatically to new works created since March 1, 1989. In order to qualify for copyright, a work must require at least a minimum amount of creativity to produce and it needs to exist in some tangible format (for example: written down, coded into HTML, saved to a hard drive, or sculpted in clay). Therefore, most material on the Web is actually protected by copyright whether or not a copyright notice is present.
The public domain actually consists of items that either were never covered by copyright law or their copyright protection has expired. For example, most works created by employees of the U.S. federal government in the scope of their employment enter the public domain immediately. Those items initially protected by copyright enter the public domain once the copyright term expires.
Copyright duration varies from country to country, so works will not enter the public domain at the same time for everyone. For example, Canada has a copyright term of the author’s lifetime plus 50 years, while many European countries have a copyright term of the author’s lifetime plus 70 years.
In the United States, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1988 increased copyright duration to the author’s lifetime plus 70 years, after which the work enters the public domain. This legislation also extended copyright terms for many earlier works, with the result that no published works will enter the public domain in the United States until 2019.
Creators may also voluntarily remove copyright at any time by dedicating a work to the public domain. Determining the copyright term for works published under earlier versions of U.S. law can be complicated, but Peter Hirtle’s chart “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States” can help resolve many questions.
Although copyright law in the United States has changed over time, the public domain remains indispensable to accomplishing the stated purpose of copyright: to promote the progress of science and the arts. Copyright law grants creators exclusive rights for a limited time to control how their work is used and distributed. While this protection encourages creativity and innovation by providing an opportunity for authors to profit from their work, the fact that copyright eventually expires is equally important to creative culture.
Creators from all disciplines take inspiration from existing works and a continuously replenished public domain provides a rich, unfettered source of materials to draw upon. Residents of the United States can look forward to 2019 when the annual cycle of works entering the public domain will resume. Until then, we may only celebrate vicariously the many treasures joining the public domain on January 1st for the rest of the world.
Along with the Beatrix Potter story mentioned earlier, the public domain in various countries welcomes creations from other authors, artists, musicians, and notable figures such as George Washington Carver, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Fats Waller, and Nikola Tesla in 2014.
Visit these sites around the Web for more coverage of Public Domain Day 2014 and works entering the public domain:
- PublicDomainDay.org from COMMUNIA
- Public Domain Day: January 1, 2014 — The Road NOT Taken from the Duke Law Center for the Study of the Public Domain
- The Public Domain Review: Class of 2014 by the Open Knowledge Foundation
- Public Domain Day: January 1st by Alex Wild, in Scientific American
- 2014 in Public Domain from Wikipedia
By Jessica Meindertsma, Rights Management Specialist at the Copyright Resources Center, The Ohio State University Libraries