Tag Archives: copyright term

Happy Public Domain Day: three ways of looking at why it matters

1 January of each year is Public Domain Day, the day that a new set of historical works enter the public domain, opening up wide new possibilities for access and use.

The reason for this all happening on 1 January is because many copyright laws provide protection for a set number of years (at minimum 50, often more) after the end of the year in which the creator died.

This protection gives an exclusive right to control things like reproduction, distribution, translation, performance, or communicating to the public online. These tend to be known as ‘economic’ rights; meanwhile ‘moral’ rights (such as to be named alongside a work) do not have a limit in time.

As such, in countries with protection lasting for life plus 50 years, it means that the works of creators who died in 1971 are now far more freely available. In countries with protection lasting for life plus 70 years, it is the works of creators who died in 1951. Some other countries have more complex rules – you can find out more on the relevant Wikipedia page.

While of course it may seem odd to be celebrating the fact that a certain time has passed since a death, in reality, entry into the public domain brings many benefits, including of course to creators insofar as their original motivation for creating will have been to share their ideas with the world.

Nonetheless, there is an unfortunate trend towards trying to extend copyright terms, often as part of trade deals, limiting when new books, songs and images enter into the public domain. There are also efforts in some countries to charge fees for use of public domain works, or at least direct reproductions of them.

This blog sets out three connected angles to the argument for celebrating Public Domain Day.


Library collections liberated

Public Domain Day is an important moment for libraries holding works whose economic copyright protection comes to an end.

To survive until this point, relevant books, documents, recordings, images, and other materials will likely have benefitted from significant investment in preservation and conservation.

And while they may well have been open for limited access and use already, entry into the public domain is what creates many new opportunities to ensure an impact in terms of access to and use of works.

For example, new possibilities emerge to make digital copies of works which can be made freely available online, to use copies in class or even research, in person or remotely without payment, and library users have much wider options to play with or remix works.

In effect, it allows for a much deeper, richer engagement between library users and the heritage and ideas of the past, going beyond the simple ‘consumption’ of works.

Clearly, in providing access, it remains important to remember that copyright is not the only factor at play in deciding whether to provide access to works or not. Factors such as the interests and preferences of indigenous groups, privacy and beyond will also come into play!


Building the knowledge commons

Connected to the previous point is about what entry into the public domain means for the ability of libraries to make an impact, a second argument focuses on how this contributes to the building of the Knowledge Commons.

This is a term that has existed for a while already, building on previous ideas of ‘commons’ – things and resources that are owned by, and available, to all, contributing to individual and collective wellbeing.

It receives particular attention in the recent UNESCO Futures of Education report, which refers to it as ‘the collective knowledge resources of humanity that have been accumulated over generations and are continuously transforming’.

The UNESCO report underlines how important it is for young people, as they learn, to be able not only to access this commons, but also to contribute to it. It cites this as a step away from rote-learning, with young people simply forced to accept the status quo.

Clearly, possibilities for access, analysis, and re-use are at their strongest when works are in the public domain! In effect, each year on 1 January, we can mark the moment that the knowledge commons grows stronger, offering new possibilities for learning, sharing and creativity.


Maximising welfare

Of course, a key argument for copyright in the first place is that it is by keeping works out of the public domain, and so crating artificial scarcity, that it is possible to generate the income necessary to cover the costs of creation.

While of course it is unsurprising that actors depending on a business model built on the exploitation of copyright will tend to paint this as the only possible means of supporting creativity, it is also true that no other dominant single dominant model has yet emerged to replace it, at least in the creative industries. Clearly we do have an interest in ensuring that those who have a talent for developing and expressing new ideas should have a means of earning a living by doing it.

The question then is where to find the balance. One way of thinking about this is by looking at costs and benefits over time.

Graph suggesting that the cumulative net benefits of copyright peak at a certiain time, and then fall awayGraph A offers a way of reflecting on this, for a complete set of works published in a given year. The horizontal axis represents time after publication, and the vertical, benefits/costs. Figures are not included, as the graph provides a model, rather than a set calculation, and because it can be hard to put a clear figure on monetary costs or benefits to some things.

The blue line represents the benefit to rightholders from copyright – in effect what is earned from sales and other licensing revenue. This starts high, but rapidly falls, with a ‘long tail’. This reflects the fact that most copyrighted works have a very limited commercial life, and just a few will continue to make money for a long time while others are effectively forgotten or worse, lost.

The green line represents the costs to the public – the impact of people who would benefit from having access to the full set of works not having it, for example to support education, research or wellbeing. Clearly some people can buy works, but it’s assumed that they have paid what they felt the work was worth, and so there is no net cost or benefit to them.

The red line therefore represents the net benefit of copyright to society as a whole – i.e. the benefit to the rightholder minus the cost to the public.

At first, this is positive. However, after a time, the cost to the public of not being able to access works becomes greater than sales or licensing fees for rightholders. At this point, the red line drops below the axis, representing a net loss to society as a whole.

Finally, the dark grey line represents the cumulative net benefit over time. At first, this is growing. However, once the costs of copyright grow higher than the benefits, this line starts falling, representing a falling total benefit to society over time.

Graph indicating that the net cumulative benefits of copyright peak and start falling at some point. However, by having a date of entry into the public domain, it is possible to halt this fall in net benefitsEntry into the public domain provides a response to this situation of a falling cumulative net benefit over time. Graph B illustrates this. At halfway along the horizontal axis, works from a given year enter the public domain, and so benefits to rightholders from sales and licensing fees (blue line), which were already low and falling, are reduced to zero. However, the costs to the public (green line) also disappear, and in fact turn into benefits as people are able to use and enjoy works freely.

The impact of this is that there is now a net benefit to society again (red line), meaning that cumulative net benefits (grey line) also start to rise again, reversing the downward trend previously seen.

Of course, the specific shape of some of these lines can be discussed (and of course, date of entry into the public domain most often depends on when the author dies), but in effect, this provides a more economic model for understanding why the public domain matters for the societies that libraries serve.

In particular, assuming that the term of copyright protection is already longer than the point at which the costs of copyright start to outweigh the benefits, then any extension of terms would certainly lead to further net losses to society.


In summary, public domain day is something to be celebrated, both for libraries themselves, and for the societies we serve. It creates new possibilities for libraries to get the best out of their collections, it significantly expands the knowledge commons, and it corrects a situation of falling net benefits to society.

Happy Public Domain Day!


Interested in finding out more? Key organisations associated with the public domain are holding a celebration on 20 January, with a particular emphasis on the sound recordings now becoming available – find out more here!


In the Public Interest? Promoting the Public Domain

1 January was Public Domain Day.

Around the world, advocates for access to culture celebrated the possibility to share books and other materials more broadly, and to make creative new uses of them.

Libraries were well represented. For our institutions, entry into the public domain means that there are new opportunities to allow users to enjoy and draw on works held in our collections.

Yet as the recent extension of Uruguay’s copyright term shows, the question of how long it is necessary to wait until a work enters the public domain remains a hot topic. There are loud voices calling for further delay.

This blog explores the main arguments on both sides:


The Case for Delay

Recouping Investment: a key initial reason for introducing copyright was to ensure that it was possible for creators, and others who had put effort into producing books and other works, to cover their own costs.

By ensuring that creators (or their publishers) could set the price of a book and then collect money, it would pay for advances, printing, editing, and other costs. As the argument goes, the longer a work stays out of the public domain, the more possibility there is to recoup investments (including on successful works in order to cover the costs of less successful ones).

Of course, many works which fall under copyright are not commercial – for them this argument makes little sense. Moreover, the idea of the success of one book cross-subsidising other less successful ones already takes us away from the more philosophical idea of copyright as something protecting individual works towards a logic of investment and speculation.

Finally, and most critically, work by the Australian Productivity Commission (p127-131 of the 2016 Intellectual Property Review), bringing together research from elsewhere, has noted evidence that almost all works have no commercial life after only five years. In effect, extending copyright beyond this will not help recoup any investments save in very exceptional circumstances.

Funding Future Creativity: linked to this first argument, a case for long copyright terms (and so the revenues that come from exploiting it) is that it provides the money necessary to fund future work. Once again, the longer the term, the longer one work can help fund the time to produce new ones.

Again, it is certainly true that there should be the possibility to earn a living from creativity, and so to spare the time in order to produce further works. Of course, this is also why cultural policies exist, with a specific focus on encouraging new and diverse voices to emerge.

However, the fact remains that most works will only earn an income for a short period. Furthermore, this argument provides no support for copyright terms that last beyond the death of the author, given that there is clearly no more creativity at that point.

Recognition: another important argument for copyright terms is the recognition it offers to authors. It is true that a lot of work will go into a book, and this is something to be respected and valued.

Even when rights do not (or no longer) make commercial sense, it is nonetheless a powerful thing for an author to be able to claim ‘parenthood’. Economic rights (such as over copying or distribution of works) provide an economic tool for ensuring that a creator (or publisher) has a tool for preventing many uses with which they may not agree.

In effect, the argument runs that longer copyright terms represent a greater recognition for the work of creators. At the same time, the logic of ‘parenthood’ is less powerful when economic rights are signed away, and of course moral rights remain, providing a means of challenging ‘misuse’ of works.


The Case for Speed

Democratic Access to Culture: While some countries focus more on this than others, the specific role of culture in promoting well-being and other goals is the subject of broad consensus. It follows that any government committed to promoting equity should wish to promote equal access to culture.

The importance of democratic access is of course a major argument for libraries in general, especially in the case of works which are still subject to copyright. By buying works, libraries support creativity, and then give access in a way that carefully looks not to harm rightholders’ interests.

But as set out in the introduction, this job is much easier when works have entered the public domain, making it possible, for example, to place them online and so let people access them wherever and whenever they want. In effect, the longer works stay out of the public domain, the longer they are less available.

Supporting Creativity and Re-Use: Going one step further, entering the public domain removes barriers not just to access, but also to the re-use of works. At a time where it is increasingly easy to engage with books, music and other materials to create and share new ones, there is a strong demand for the ‘raw material’ for this further creativity.

While many of these re-uses are purely playful, some are of course commercial. This can be seen as distasteful in some cultures, and give rise to calls for the sharing of revenues with the creators of the original. Of course, once a work enters the public domain, this possibility disappears, even if the use is unoriginal. Other cultures are less concerned, seeing commercial re-use as a means of generating value.

Furthermore, re-use also provides an opportunity to re-discover the vast majority of works which are no longer commercially available after a short period. As the Australian Productivity Commission report highlights, just because one publisher has decided no longer to sell a book, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value.

Given that this is the case for almost all works after only a few years, facilitating re-use provides a great way of saving books from oblivion. The longer we have to wait for a work to enter the public domain, the longer it risks remaining hidden – often without even a clear idea of who to contact in order to seek permission for use (Orphan Works).


Balancing the Arguments

Determining the right length of copyright – and so when works should enter into the public domain – will in the end be a balance between the arguments set out above.

In the short-term, copyright clearly is at the heart of the modern creative industries, providing a means of funding a large part of commercial culture. It has also become seen as a key ingredient in the recognition of artists.

However, in the longer term, economic and even more philosophical arguments lose their power, while the cumulative costs – in terms of missed opportunities to access, re-discover and re-use works as facilitated by their entry into the public domain – rise.


Of course, the arguments will apply differently for different creators and different works. It will always be possible to find works which are still earning copyright revenues many years after the death of an author. But this is clearly the exception not the rule.


This is why it is so valuable to celebrate – and remind ourselves of the importance of – the public domain.