Monday, September 27, 2010

Public Domain 101 - Part 1 - An Introduction

Our markets, our democracy, our science, our traditions of free speech, and our art all depend more heavily on a Public Domain of freely available material than they do on the informational material that is covered by property rights. The Public Domain is not some gummy residue left behind when all the good stuff has been covered by property law. The Public Domain is the place we quarry the building blocks of our culture. It is, in fact, the majority of our culture.
- James Boyle, The Public Domain

Public Domain Day is celebrated on Jan 1st of each year.
However, because of the CTEA, there won't be any real
celebrations until 2019.
Hiya, Kiddies! It's yer Ol' Professor here with a bit of a change of pace. Back when I first started this blog, the intent was not just to do reviews and commentaries about movies in the public domain, but also to provide information about just exactly what the public domain is, why it's important, how to take advantage of this incredible resource that is available to and owned by every one of us, and the threats, challenges and changes to both copyright and the public domain in this new digital age. So, in order to get back to that original purpose, this is the first in a series of posts I'm calling simply "Public Domain 101". Now for the most part I'm going to be talking about films here, since that's my own particular area of interest, but in general what I'll be saying will apply to any creative endeavor, whether it's a film, a book, a piece of music, a work of art, or even this blog post itself.

Now, one thing I want to make clear right from the start is that just because I am pro-public domain that does not mean that I am anti-copyright. Far from it. When it is used to serve the purpose for which it was intended, i.e. "To encourage a dynamic creative culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and to provide widespread, affordable access to content for the public."[1], I very much support copyright and think it is a very important thing. It's only when it's abused and continually expanded to protect corporate interests over those of actual creators and to limit or curtail concepts such as fair use and the entry of new works into the public domain (under current U.S. law, as a result of 1998's Copyright Term Extension Act, no new works will enter the public domain until at least 2019[2]) that I find myself calling for copyright reform. (And don't worry if you're unfamiliar with or unclear on some of the terms that I'm using here such as "fair use" - I'll do my best to clear things up as we go along.)

Also I should note that for the most part I will only be discussing copyright and the public domain in the U.S. Since the laws vary from country to country, if you live elsewhere I urge you to check the laws in your own country.

Of course, before we can really talk about where we are today, we really need to take a trip to the past and see just exactly where these two concepts, Copyright and the Public Domain, come from - and that's what we'll do in Part Two as we travel from Ogg to Ugh!

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting
-Professor Damian

1) This statement is taken from the document "Copyright and Related Rights" created by the World Intellectual Property Organisation or WIPO. More specific to the U.S., Article 1 Section 8 Clause 8 of the U. S. Constitution not only grants congress the power to establish copyright law, but also states the reason for doing so - to wit: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." More on that next time.

2) For a basic outline of the effects of this latest term extension and the duration of current copyright terms in the U.S. (and a glimpse at how complex it has become), see this chart at the Cornell University website. For an interesting glimpse at the effect of this most recent change in the law and what could have been entering the public domain under the previous rules, check out this article from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at the Duke Law School.


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Unless otherwise noted, all movies discussed on this blog and all associated materials are believed to be in the Public Domain. If you are a copyright holder for any of these materials, please email me. Unless otherwise noted, all material created for this blog by Professor Damian is licensed under a Creative Commons license as described below. Creative Commons License
Professor Damian's Public Domain Treasure Chest by Professor Damian is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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