Happy Public Domain Day! As of today, works from 1926 have entered the public domain—among them the first Winnie the Pooh book, the first Hercule Poirot book, and the first novel by Ernest Hemingway! This year’s Public Domain Day is special because for the first time literally ever, sound recordings are entering the public domain. You can read more about that and what else is entering PD over on the Duke CSPD.
This year, in celebration of Public Domain Day, I’m reviewing the Public Domain Review. PDR is an online journal which publishes essays concerning art and artifacts in the public domain. They also curate collections of artwork, photographs, and books, some of which they sell prints of. At the start of 2021 they celebrated their tenth anniversary, so they’ve got an extensive backlog—294 essays and 990 collection posts, by their count. Throughout all of 2021, I read every essay they published and perused every collection they showcased, in order to write this review. So I’m going to talk about why Public Domain Review is great, and then recommend some of my favorite posts from the past year.
Firstly, Public Domain Review is great just for being what it is. The public domain is vast. It expands infinitely pastwards. This is exciting, but where do you start? Say, for example, you’re an ES-EN translator, and you want to cut your teeth on a public domain work that hasn’t been translated before. You know plenty of old Spanish books, but they’re the ones that everyone knows, they’re the ones that have already been translated. And you may be familiar with more recent untranslated works, but these are under copyright. (This is why, vast as the public domain is, it is still not vast enough—the stuff that is most recent, most relevant, most likely to be known, is the stuff that is least accessible.)
Happy Public Domain Day! This year, works from 1925 enter the public domain in the US and many other countries. Read more about the public domain and what’s entering it this year on the CSPD.
In the past, I’ve said that I think the burden to protect and expand the public domain falls most on creators. This year I’m going to focus specifically on one group, authors, their failure to live up to this responsibility, and the urgent need that they be more copyright literate and considerate of the public domain. Because this year, one case illustrates this problem perfectly—the Internet Archive.
The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization dedicated to digital archival. Its website hosts archived games, movies, music, books, Flash files, and past versions of other websites. Its mission is to preserve these cultural artifacts and provide easy access to them for researchers and the general public. These are works in the public domain, or works that have been uploaded by users. However, the Internet Archive also hosts many scans of copyrighted books through their Open Library, which are available to users through Controlled Digital Lending.
Controlled Digital Lending is a way for libraries to lend books digitally, while still respecting copyright law (that’s the ‘controlled’ part.) Under Controlled Digital Lending, a library can only lend as many copies digitally as it physically owns. I’ll just quote the CDL website itself, because it explains it nicely: “… if a library owns three copies of a title and digitizes one copy, it may use CDL to circulate one digital copy and two print, or three digital copies, or two digital copies and one print; in all cases, it could only circulate the same number of copies that it owned before digitization.” Many of the scans in the Open Library come from local libraries throughout the world. If the library doesn’t have a book the reader wants, the reader can sponsor it, purchasing a physical copy of the book to be digitized and made available in the Open Library forever. This is nothing too strange—this is how libraries work, mostly1. Buy the book once—or receive it as a donation from someone else who bought it—and circulate it forever. CDL is kinda like an instantaneous interlibrary loan that can be accessed online.
The value of this service should be self-evident. If it isn’t, consider this year. Early on in the pandemic most libraries were closed, with only digital resources available. This is great for newer books and popular old books, but the vast majority of books under copyright don’t have ebook versions available on services like Overdrive or Hoopla—readers couldn’t even request that their libraries obtain those ebook versions, because they simply don’t exist. So in early 2020, the only way to access these works without purchasing them (I’ll get to this exception in a bit) was through Controlled Digital Lending. So many educators, students, and readers of all stripes would have to turn away from their local or institutional libraries and utilize the Internet Archive—more patrons than the Internet Archive’s holdings could possibly support. So they suspended all waitlists on their Open Library. Patrons still didn’t have access to DRM-free files, patrons were still only able to borrow for set periods of time, but the Internet Archive was no longer limiting circulation to one copy, one hold. As many people as wanted to could check out a book simultaneously, without having to wait.
Again, the value, the urgency, of this initiative should be self-evident. Even without the pandemic, access to books often poses problems for students with limited money. For example, with an entire class of students needing a book required by the syllabus, unless the local library has multiple copies, students are forced to buy their own or wait to get it through an Interlibrary Loan. The keyword here is waiting—in an academic setting, waiting is often not an option. Assignments, reading discussions, capstone projects, all have deadlines. If you’re just looking for a fun read, sure, you can wait, or pick out a different book that’s available right away. But if you’re hunting down a chapter cited by a book which covers the exact niche angle on the niche topic of your thesis, you can’t just borrow any old book, and you may not have time to wait for other patrons. Students with enough money could buy their required reading, but not everyone has the funds to purchase multiple texts, sometimes quite expensive, every semester. This is the whole point of libraries, after all—if everyone could afford to buy every book they read, we wouldn’t need libraries in the first place. For specific examples of people who benefited from the NEL, see this post on the Internet Archive blog.
The National Emergency Library was to run from March 24 “through June 30, 2020, or the end of the US national emergency, whichever is later.” Ultimately, it only ran until June 16th.
Wow! More formerly copyrighted works released to the public domain! This year I don’t really have much of a post like I’ve done in previousyears—I ended up being pretty busy these past couple months, and couldn’t put anything together in time for today. In lieu of my own blabbing, I recommend you read the Duke CSPD’s post on Public Domain Day 2020, if you’re interested in what works are newly public domain, and what works could’ve become public domain today if copyright law weren’t so draconian.
That said, I am still releasing one of my own works to the public domain, as I have in years past. This year, that work is “ChannelCon ’30,” a novelette about “curators” who put together livestreams of public domain movies. Lindsey Xong and Amber Smith, two such curators, form the highly popular channel Amber Linz. Just like any popular curators, they go to ChannelCon, but quickly find the fans there divided into two sides engaged in an intense feud. As the Con falls into chaos, the two factions drive a wedge between Amber and Lindsey, and finding out who is behind the sabotage becomes crucial.
The original publication included an afterword, which I am also releasing to the public domain. You can download “ChannelCon ’30” in the following formats: PDF — Epub — Mobi — Docx. Read it, steal it, break it, put your name on it, whatever, happy Public Domain Day!!!
We made it! At long fucking last, we have made it out the other end, and for the first time in 50 years (with the exception of just two years, 1997 and 1998), works are entering the public domain for the US and almost every other country on Earth. As is tradition on this blog (as of a year ago), every Public Domain Day (January 1st) I write a post related to my love for the public domain, and release one of my own works to the public domain. This year, I’m writing about the first English translation of And So Ad Infinitum, and releasing Tallahassee Ca. 2045 to the public domain! Jump down to the bottom of this post if you just want to read my play, or stick around if you want to hear about insects and bad poetry!
(And if you’re unclear on why today is so special and what the heck the public domain is, you can check out my post from last year.)
Ze života hmyzu (“From Insect Life”) is a play in three acts, written by Karel Čapek in 1920. As such, the original Czech has been in the public domain for more than half a century, and can be read online here. Obscure as it is in the anglophonic world, the play has seen many adaptations and productions, from a 1996 Finnish opera to a 2018 Czech film titled Hmyz (“Insect” in English). It’s been translated into English a few times over the past century, but the earliest translation was done by Paul Selver in 1923—which means it has just entered the Public Domain as of this very day!Read More »
EDIT: A previous version of this post had some slightly bad math. Basically, I said nothing had entered public domain for 50 years. That’s not quite right. In 1997 and 1998, works published in 1921 and 1922 entered public domain, respectively. Before that, the last time works entered public domain was 1977, when the copyright for works published in 1920 expired. Still, I think I’m right to call it a “half-century of starvation.” In over 50 years, we only ate twice.
Today is Public Domain Day. That effectively means nothing in the US, where for the past 49 years (basically, see above), no published works have entered the public domain. However, next year, finally, finally, this half-century of starvation will be over.
A work that is in a country’s public domain is a work that anyone can modify, sell, or incorporate into a new work, with no permission needed from anyone. There is no copyright holder for works in the public domain. Originally, US copyright law stated that a work—like a book, a painting, a piece of software, a song, etc.—had to be registered for copyright, after which point the right to copy it would rest solely with the author, for 14 years. The author could renew it for another 14 years after that, if they wanted, and then it would enter the public domain. In 1830, this law was modified so that terms were 28 years, again with the option for renewal.
A century and more later, in 1976, copyright term was dramatically increased to the life of the author plus 50 years. Additionally, the 1976 act set a term of 75 years for any work of unknown origin, or any “work for hire”—a term which would be applied to new works, and works published before 1978. A work for hire would be like a photo created by an employee as part of their job—or, it could be a movie created by a group of people (most movies are works for hire), who all sign a contract to designate the movie as a work for hire. As well, this dumpster fire piece of legislation extended the maximum copyright term of works created before 1976 from 56 years to 75 years.
This is a lot to take in, so let me break it down. Suppose I write a book in 1930, and I’m 30 years old, and I publish it that same year. I would hold the copyright through 1958, at which point I would renew it. I’m still alive after all, might as well make sure people are buying it from me and not anyone else. Then I would hold the copyright term through 1986, and it would expire on January 1st 1987. Now in 1976, I hear about this new copyright act, which allows authors to retain control of their works for as long as they live—and then grants their estates control of the work for 50 years after their death. Well, that doesn’t seem fair to me—I’ll still be alive (possibly) when my copyright expires in 1986, and I still want that money. Good news—the 1976 Copyright Act grants my work a copyright term of 75 years, meaning it will expire in 2006—when I’m 106 (or probably dead.) Hooray! I suppose this is a good scenario, but here’s what could also happen:
Suppose I write a song when I’m 30 in the year 1930, publish the song, and die instantly. Well, my estate would then get to reap the benefits of that song for 75 years. Or, maybe I don’t have an estate—maybe no rightful heir can be found, in which case, this song is stuck in limbo, with absolutely no one benefitting from it, for the better part of a century.
Suppose I write a song in 1920 and it doesn’t matter how old I am. The song remains in the public domain until January 1st 1977, the year before 1976 act goes into effect. It would be among the last batch of published works to enter the public domain, before the 50-year drought that we’re finally reaching the end of now (with the exception of 1997 and ’98.)
But whatever. That’s just some weird bit of business to try and bridge the gap between old copyright law and new copyright law. Let’s see how this would work for an artist working in 1980.
Suppose I make a movie as a work for hire in 1980. A corporation would probably be the copyright holder, and they would hold the rights to the movie for the next 75 years—or, if for some reason they waited a long time to publish it, 120 years. The 1976 act granted copyright for 120 years after creation, or 75 years after publication—whichever comes first. Potentially, a company could wait 119 years to release a movie, and then have it enter public domain the next year. Weird. Anyway, here’s how this works for an individual author:
Suppose I draw a self-portrait in 1980 and die instantly. (I think I would have to publish it too, but I’m not sure. I’ll address how unpublished works are handled in a moment.) My estate will then hold the copyright through 2030.
So this is really bad and I’ll talk about that in a moment, but hold onto your butts for right now because in 1998, the term of copyright was increased to the author’s life plus 70 years, and 95 years for works published before 1978. The term for works for hire was also increased to 95 years, or 120 years after creation (at least they didn’t extend that, I guess.)Read More »