2021 has finally arrived, and as always, the new year brings another celebration: Public Domain Day.
This is a big deal. Why? Because the public domain means that works can be used and modified by anyone without authorisation. As such, this enriches the range of books, articles, art and beyond that brings us pleasure, inspiration and insights without copyright-related restrictions.
This matters for libraries, as institutions focused on maximizing access to information, in particular of works which have been carefully preserved for years.
Why the Public Domain?
All works that reflect the original expression of the mind of an author are protected by copyright law as soon as they are created, for a long time.
Copyright protection has been regularly extended through time. The key international law on the matter – the Berne Convention – establishes protection for the life of the author plus a further 50 years. Yet countries can go further. In 1998, the United States agreed via the Copyright Term Extension Act to extend copyright protection to 70 years after the death of the author. This decision has been followed by additional countries, delaying the entry of works in the public domain, with some offering as many as 100 years of protection after death.
Until these works enter the public domain, they are still subject to restrictions on use, despite that fact that the commercial value of works is generally only in the first few years after publication. As a result, plenty of works are not easily available, and therefore subject to oblivion.
As a result, any extension of protection limits libraries’ ability to provide wide access to works.
Further risks come from the fact that the public domain too often does not exist as a concept in legislation (it is rather implicit, resulting from the lapsing of protections). This can create uncertainty, leaving open the possibility to create new restrictions.
What is Public Domain Day?
Public Domain Day falls on is the first of January of each year and is celebrated during the whole month. It is about celebrating the public domain, recognizing the importance of protecting it, and fostering the use of materials by all communities.
This date was chosen because calculating copyright protection can be complicated. As a result, many countries have decided to simplify it by choosing the 1 January following the anniversary of the death of the author as the release date for works entering the public domain.
As a result, in countries with a copyright term of life plus 70 years, the works of authors who died in 1950 are now in the public domain. Thanks to earlier reforms in US law, books and films released in 1925 have also now lost copyright protection.
What are the next steps?
Are you willing to celebrate the public domain and make the most of it with your Library?
Whether you are in an academic library, a heritage library, or a public library, this is an opportunity to showcase works newly in the public domain. The library can highlight works via a conference, communications on blogs and social media, a wiki edit-a-thon to add these new works in Wikisource or to complete Wikipedia pages.
Several approaches are available:
Pick a specific work that is now in the public domain. Who is the author? Why is this book unique and what did it tell us back in time? And now? Make a thread on social media or share it on your blog!
Build understanding about copyright: this is also a good time to share more about copyright laws, and library issues. Use Public Domain Day to discuss the public domain, common goods and the importance of unrestricted access.
Here is the Wikilist of works entering the public domain in 2021.