Tag Archives: public domain

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!


Celebrating the Public Domain 2021

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.

If you are interested in more information, a few articles might be interesting: here, here, here (US), here and here (France), here and here (Spain), here in Colombia, here in Portugal.

Here is the Wikilist of works entering the public domain in 2021.

Guest Blog: The Passenger Pigeon Manifesto

This is a guest blog by Adam Harangozó, a freelance creative worker.

Our past is crucial in understanding our present. It offers us knowledge and insights that help us to evaluate the world we live in today – the way we live our lives, structure our economies, and relate to each other and to nature. Learning from the past may yet help us correct mistakes and find better ways to live in the future. But for this to happen, there must be equal access to knowledge about the past, allowing for inclusive critical dialogue.

The Passenger Pigeon Manifesto (see below, and online),signed by a large number of professionals and cultural organisations, was born out of the fact that at a time of unprecedented species loss, the possibility for people to study animals that are no longer with us depends entirely on the accessibility of what has been written about them, or collected from them. With the 2nd Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity coming up next year, this is a crucial moment. There has rarely been a more appropriate time to talk about the importance of ensuring we can draw on this knowledge in order to understand how species decline, draw on insights that we can use more broadly in science, and simply raise awareness of what is at stake.

Clearly, loss of species is just one of many issues that ask us to re-evaluate our past. The COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and Black Lives Matter all do so. In order to learn to do things differently, we must have free access to our past. There is also a growing readiness to look at what more can be done to make digitised collections available to all. The Passenger Pigeon Manifesto brings these issues together into a clear call for more work to make our heritage accessible for all.


Passenger Pigeon Manifesto

A call to public galleries, libraries, archives, and museums to liberate our cultural heritage. Illustrated with the cautionary tales of extinct species and our lack of access to what remains of them.


How many people know about the passenger pigeons? 

Martha, the last passenger pigeon to ever live on Earth, died on 1 September 1914. Less than 50 years before her, wild pigeons, as they were also called, flew in flocks of millions in the USA and Canada. Their numbers were so vast their arrival darkened the sky for hours, and branches of trees broke under the collective impact of their landing. Accounts describing how it felt to witness these birds were already unimaginable to most people at the beginning of the 20th century. Still, they are not a matter of poetry but factual natural history. 

Simon Pokagon, a Native American Pottawatomi author and advocate, as a young man lived in a time when he could still see passenger pigeons “move in one unbroken column for hours across the sky, like some great river(…) from morning until night”. He noted that even though his tribe already named the birds O-me-me-wog, “why European race did not accept that name was, no doubt, because the bird so much resembled the domesticated pigeon; they naturally called it a wild pigeon, as they called us wild men”. Pokagon writes about witnessing a method of hunting passenger pigeons by feeding them whiskey-soaked mast, rendering them flightless. He was shattered by a tragic parallel: his tribe was devastated by the introduction of mass produced alcohol by white men.

Passenger pigeons mentioned in the Indiana State Sentinel newspaper

Passenger pigeons mentioned in the Indiana State Sentinel newspaper. Public Domain. Source: Indiana State Sentinel/Wikimedia Commons https://bit.ly/2FySyuk


The history of the passenger pigeons is accompanied by a ubiquitous disbelief. When the sight of millions was an integral part of the ecosystem and the everyday life of modern America, many did not believe a species of such numbers could go extinct. When their disappearance became an undeniable experience, people said they simply moved to South America. Today, chasing dreams of resurrection in the face of anthropogenic extinctions shows the still continuing failure to understand the finality of their death and come to terms with our responsibility. 

Deep under all this, there is a tragic lack of self-reflection on what we, humans, are capable of. Many might try to dismiss this is as being only a matter of older times and societies long since transcended. Yet, there is no need to dig deep. Don’t forget about the widespread denial of climate change. Don’t forget about the anti-narratives to the Black Lives Matter movement claiming systematic racism does not exist, denying any connections to colonialism.

In order to improve, our definition of what it means to be human must include recognising the horrors we are capable of in societies of past and present. The systematic oppression of others and the massacre of billions of animals were done by human beings. Us. We can become better only if we realise that besides all the wonders, this is us too and it can happen again if we don’t change the ways we live together.


Thylacine at Beaumaris Zoo, 1936

Thylacine at Beaumaris Zoo, 1936. Public Domain. Source: Ben Sheppard from Tasmanian Archives/Wikimedia Commons: https://bit.ly/35wsHhu


A photo of one of the last thylacines, a species which became extinct when Benjamin died on 7 September 1936. Our imagination tries to grasp it through animals we know: it’s some kind of a tiger or a wolf. But it’s none of that, not even remotely related. What colours did it have? What did it sound like?

How do we feel when we look at photographs of animals long gone? Melancholy, the repressed fear of death, sorrow but also empathy, the desire to act – these are very important feelings. Black and white conveys a sadness of final loss that no colors can. Photography, no matter how deceptive it can be, is able to wash away cynicism and induce profoundly human emotions – ones we should feel when we think about injustice – human and non-human –, extinction or the climate crisis.

Looking at history provides a mental space where we can observe humanity and wonder about the whys and what ifs without the immediate frustration of the present. Exactly this removedness is what allows us to recognise and reflect on mistakes and right decisions.

We are supposed to learn from history, yet we don’t have access to it. Historical photographs of extinct animals are among the most important artefacts to teach and inform about human impact on nature. But where to look when one wants to see all that is left of these beings? Where can we access all the extant photos of the thylacine or the passenger pigeon? History books use photos to help us relate to narratives and see a shared reality. But how can we look through our own communities’ photographic heritage, share it with each other and use it for research and education?

Historical photos are kept by archives, libraries, museums and other cultural institutions. Preservation, which is the goal of cultural institutions, means ensuring not only the existence of but the access to historical materials. It is the opposite of owning: it’s sustainable sharing. Similarly, conservation is not capturing and caging but ensuring the conditions and freedom to live.

Even though most of our tangible cultural heritage has not been digitised yet, a process greatly hindered by the lack of resources for professionals, we could already have much to look at online. In reality, a significant portion of already digitised historical photos is not available freely to the public – despite being in the public domain. We might be able to see thumbnails or medium sized previews scattered throughout numerous online catalogs but most of the time we don’t get to see them in full quality and detail. In general, they are hidden, the memory of their existence slowly going extinct.

The knowledge and efforts of these institutions are crucial in tending our cultural landscape but they cannot become prisons to our history. Instead of claiming ownership, their task is to provide unrestricted access and free use. Cultural heritage should not be accessible only for those who can afford paying for it.



Acknowledging the importance of access to information and cultural heritage, and the vital role of public institutions, we call on galleries, libraries, archives, museums, zoos and historical societies all over the world:

1.) Cultural institutions should reflect on and rethink their roles in relation to access. While the current policy landscape, lack of infrastructure and the serious budget cuts do not support openness, cultural institutions cannot lose sight of their essential role in building bridges to culture. Preservation must mean ensuring our cultural heritage is always easily accessible to anyone. Without free, public access, these items will only be objects to be forgotten and rediscovered again and again, known only by exclusive communities.

2.) Physical preservation is not enough. Digital preservation of copies and metadata is essential but due to the erosion of storage, files can get damaged easily. To ensure the longevity of digital items, the existence of the highest possible number of copies is required: this can be achieved by sharing through free access.

3.) Beyond preservation and providing access, institutions need to communicate the existence and content of their collections, our cultural heritage. Even with unlimited access, not knowing about the existence and context of historical materials is almost the same as if they didn’t exist. Approachability and good communication is crucial in reaching people who otherwise have less access to knowledge.

4.) Publicly funded institutions must not be transformed by the market logic of neoliberalism. The role of archives, museums and other cultural institutions, is more and more challenged by capitalism. They need to redefine themselves in ways that allow cultural commodities to be archived, described and shared in the frameworks of open access and open science. The remedy to budget-cuts and marketisation requires wide-scale, public dialogue and collaboration. Involving people from outside of academia has great potential: NGOs, volunteers, open-source enthusiasts, online and offline communities and passionate individuals are a vast resource and should be encouraged to participate. Akin to citizen scientists, there can be citizen archivists.

5.) Liberate and upload all digitised photographs and artworks that are in the public domain or whose copyrights are owned by public institutions. Remove all restrictions on access, quality and reuse while applying cultural and ethical considerations (“open by default, closed by exception”). Prioritize adapting principles and values recommended by the OpenGLAM initiative in the upcoming ‘Declaration on Open Access for Cultural Heritage’.

6.) All collections should be searchable and accessible in an international, digital photo repository. Instead of spending on developing various new platforms for each institution, the ideal candidate for an independent, central imagebase that provides the widest possible reach is Wikimedia Commons. Using Commons would provide an immediate opportunity to release cultural heritage while still allowing the long-term development of digital archives for institutional purposes. Operated by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, Commons is a community managed, open and free multilanguage platform. It provides access to millions of people by sharing images under open licences. Wikipedias of all languages are using Commons to illustrate their articles, and the photos appear on news sites, blogs, and research articles all over the world. Wikimedia is open to collaboration with GLAMs and many institutions are already active on the site including the Digital Public Library of America and the Cultureel Erfgoed. By using Commons, institutions will also benefit: the platform runs on a free and flexible software where photos can be described and categorised using structured data. Utilising the participation of a large and diverse community in catalogising, tagging, publicising and even researching can save time and cut costs. At the same time, institutions will still retain the physical copies and will be able to use the digital photos on their own platforms as well. The images on Commons will also cite their original holding institutions, granting further visibility to their collections and efforts.

Today we are so far ahead in forgetting our past that we came very close to repeating it. Providing free, universal access to culture and knowledge is one of the steps we must take to prevent this.

Passenger Pigeon profile view with shadow

Passenger Pigeon profile view with shadow. Public Domain. Source: J.G. Hubbard from Wisconsin Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons, https://bit.ly/3it0Xhx

A list of signatories is available on the Manifesto website: https://ppmanifesto.hcommons.org/

Opening up collections in Libraries supports creativity

More and more libraries are working to open data from heritage collections. Many institutions (the Library Brasiliana Guita e Jose Mindlin in Brazil, the Auckland Libraries – Heritage Images in Australia or the Library Centrală Universitară “Lucian Blaga” in Cluj-Napoca for instance) are turning to digital, in line with the OpenGLAM principles, to realise the potential of the public domain: to promote access, use, re-use – including for commercial purposes – knowledge and skills of materials in the public domain.

Yet at the same time, funding for cultural institutions is declining in Europe and North America. With their means reduced, the development of strategies is dependent on the economic model of the institution.

In order to reconcile these two goals – opening data and collections, and ensuring financial sustainability – libraries and other cultural institutions are reflecting on ways to allow their reproductions to be opened. This means that heritage institutions are exploring different economic models in order to develop models that generate funding and that do not create additional barriers to knowledge from collections in the public domain in particular. In doing so, by opening up data collections from the public domain for commercial reuse, libraries also have an impact on the overall economy of the country.

This is not always easy. While large heritage institutions are committed to opening up heritage collections in public domain  (offering the possibility to download in good quality with extensive information on the use that can be done with the reproduction), this digital strategy is struggling to develop in smaller institutions

Still today, requests for the use of reproductions of images are handled manually by agents of the institution. This mission involves a considerable labour force and time to verify the status of the work (the rights applied to the artefact) and the status of the reproduction of the work. This is meticulous work which requires having a team trained in these issues.

In parallel with this situation,  where libraries have developed platforms which allow users to download reproductions of objects from library websites, it has been clear that investment is essential to building such a digital infrastructure. It also means investing human resources on missions related to collection datasets to clarify the status of artefacts.

In short, it appears that in both cases, human resources are needed to clarify the status of the objects and their reproductions, and then either add data and carry out the development of a platform, or deal with requests on a case-by-case basis.

However, several points seem interesting to take into account:

_ the time and  work of the employees

_ the initial presumption that the user will / must ask the institution for the image

_ the promotion and outreach of the collection

First, time. Time that agents spend responding to requests for images and other materials is relative to the size of the institution and the size of the collections. However, whereas agents can repeat the same action for several years on the same item, data integrated into the website relating to this item can be reused repeatedly, and is likely to be easier to use on other platforms also.

This means that even though providing clarity on the artefact data and the status of these objects is a long and precise job, once this job is done, there is no need to do it again. In the same way, an updated database filled with all the information will have little change over time.

Secondly, there is an assumption that users will ask the institution to use an image. While users affiliated with research institutions may well be experienced in making requests, but what about other users, such as:

_ Heritage institutions, start-ups, non-profit organisations and companies that aggregate heritage data in the public domain.

_ Students who must consult heritage sources in the public domain to facilitate referencing and reproductions in academic research.

_ Designers, artists, graphic artists and creators in general

Users’ digital practices show that they will not take the time to make an official request. In the best of cases, they will quickly seek a reproduction whose rights are free and in the worst case, they will use a copy which is not in the public domain.

Therefore, if libraries wish to enhance and promote their collections by promoting the re-use of materials in the public domain, it is necessary to facilitate access to users. This again speaks in favour of moving to easy-to-use platforms, rather than assuming that the possibility to request access is enough.

Finally, there is also evidence of the possibility to development of economic models based on the public domain, without violating fundamental principles of free access within cultural institutions.

For instance, the Rijksmuseum offers to its users the possibility to download collections in the public domain for free in high quality, but if the user wishes to have a poster, frame, reproduction in aluminium, it is possible to place an order for a fee. This decision reflects a desire to support creativity while developing an economic model.

From this example, it seems relevant to think about what a gift shop can bring in this direction primarily on the realisation of prints on objects (T-shirt, cups, bags for instance) or paper works on place, within the library.

We could imagine the possibility of imagining an online store based on a Print and Read model (linked to the Print and Play concept for games). It would be possible to produce objects publish works which are no longer issued for economic reasons with pictorial covers.

Some examples of re-use:

Items sold on Etsy from the Rijksmuseum collections: https://www.etsy.com/ca/pages/rijksstudio

On the Society6 site, Public Demesne offers items made from heritage collections in the public domain: https://society6.com/publicdemesne

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.

Copyright Week Day 3: Public Domain, Privatised Knowledge, and Libraries

Copyright Week Day 3 Image1 January 2019 saw a greater than usual focus on the importance of the public domain. For the first time in 20 years, new works started to go out of copyright in the United States, following a 20 year hiatus.

There was a lot of celebration – and performances of ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’. But there was also reflection on the importance of the public domain itself.

One piece, a couple of weeks earlier by James Boyle in The Economist but revisited for the occasion, highlighted the idea that there was a tragedy of the digital commons.

The author referred back to the idea that without a form of government (or privatisation), common resources would quickly disappear as individuals seek to maximise their own gain, at the cost of others.

Villagers would allow their cows to eat all of the grass on the common land. A farmer would take all of the water. A logging company would cut down all of the trees.

The author worries that the same arguments are being used to close off the digital commons, under the pretence that without this control (either by government, or by private rightholders), nothing would be created.

Starting in the 90s, he argues, this has led to rules on digital content which have risked rewarding the ideas of the past at the expense of the ideas of the future.

He suggests that open initiatives, such as open source software, the Human Genome Project, or Creative Commons have shown what can be done when knowledge is shared.


Libraries, the Commons, and the Not-100%-Private

For the time being, openly licenced work remains just one model under which works are shared. The retention of rights – the privatisation of knowledge – remains common. This is where the limitations and exceptions to copyright that laws often give to libraries come in.

These allow for some limited access and use possibilities, in the case of libraries for a public interest goal. They don’t make works ‘common’, but they make them a little less private. They allow readers to analyse, to copy or quote short sections, to critique and parody, and to use for research amongst other things.

This is important. Copyright is a monopoly power, and brings with it the problems associated with monopolies – under-supply and over-charging. This benefits the rightholder, but leads to costs for the consumer – usually those less able to pay.

The problem now is that these flexibilities are being increasingly restricted. Thanks to a mixture of technology (digital rights management) and a failure to update laws (in particular to account for the shift from paper to digital), the control enjoyed by rightholders has never been greater.

Add to this the growing pressure on platforms to pre-filter any uploaded content in case of potential copyright violation (likely also excluding large amounts of material making use of exceptions and limitations), and the possibility to privatise knowledge completely has never been greater.

This has been good news for rightholders, and has doubtless led to some new revenue streams. It has also created new possibilities for price discrimination (do you pay for read-only access? Can you copy elements? Can you carry out text and data mining?).

However, it risks creating greater costs to consumers and future than it creates benefits to producers, as monopoly powers become more complete, and there is little incentive, except among the more far-sighted, to allow those limited, public interest uses that are at the heart of what libraries do.


This is why the effort of libraries to encourage exceptions and limitations to copyright goes hand-in-hand with their support for open access.

The two efforts – to protect and expand the public domain, and ensure that other works are just public enough to contribute to further creativity (and in particular that libraries can fulfil their missions!), without undermining the business model behind their creation – are both necessary.

Read more about IFLA’s work on copyright.

Because Markets Fail: Libraries and the Public Domain

Intellectual property rights – copyrights included – are designed to create a market for ideas and expressions. Without them, the argument goes, there is no way

of earning money from a work or product, and so no incentive to create. The right to enjoy the material benefits of a work – if not copyright per se – is of course protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


But what happens when traditional means of earning money – through selling books or licensing files – no longer work? For every book or song that continues to sell years after publication, there are thousands, if not more, which have been forgotten, lost in a back-catalogue (or, in the digital world, simply deleted).


What opportunities are there then for creators to be rediscovered, and for their work to inspire further innovation and creativity? How can we avoid a sub-optimal situation for both authors and readers – a market failure?


Just as copyright provides a response to the need to ensure that creators can earn a living from their work, the public domain delivers on the right of society as a whole to access culture, information and knowledge. It also places limits on the harm that can be done by market failures associated with long copyright terms (many would argue too long). It is open and available to all because we don’t know – and cannot predict – who is going to rediscover which work and when. But it is better to create an opportunity, than not at all.


Libraries play an essential role both in ensuring that we have a public domain, and in increasing the chance that it will be used.


First of all, the survival of works through the long wilderness years often depends on public interest collection and preservation policies. When a purely commercial operator would have cleared copies from the warehouses or servers, libraries collect and conserve works, for example through legal deposit schemes. They then invest time, resources and expertise into keeping documents readable and usable, for the benefit of researchers and readers now and in the future. Much of the public domain as we know it lives in (or originates) from a library.


Secondly, libraries organise – by cataloguing and referencing – works in the public domain, so that they can be found and used in future. They are the original search engines, and for works created before the digital age (and many created since), the efforts of librarians and archivists in ensuring that books and other materials are recorded properly is essential.


Finally, there is access. Libraries are also about ensuring that works and the information they contain is accessed and used. By welcoming students, researchers, writers, and the general public, they provide a space where people can discover and enjoy the public domain. The Internet has offered new possibilities. The work of organisations like Europeana show what is possible when you bring together the work of libraries in one continent, and invest in user friendly web portals. Digital libraries are appearing in various countries around the world, supporting access to and exchange of works, and helping prove the diversity of our past.


Clearly there are challenges. The explosion of digital content has not been accompanied by equally ambitious preservation efforts as yet, meaning that many works are at risk of disappearing for ever. On a more political level, the dream that big data techniques will somehow make it possible to ‘monetise’ the back catalogue could lead to challenges to the public domain. But these do not affect the underlining issue – that the public domain helps limit the market failures created by copyright terms, and that libraries in turn make the public domain meaningful.