January 1 marks the potential arrival of new material to the public domain. At publicdomain on Xanga is a treasure trove of names – people who passed away in 1960 – their published works can be freely enjoyed in the life-plus-fifty copyright jurisdictions. Writers, composers, artists, politicians, historians, scientists, economists and more are on the list. (Check out the previous years’ entries as well.) Communia features writers whose works are now relieved of their life-plus-seventy copyright terms together with a list of European initiatives celebrating the public domain. But the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University places a sobering check on the celebratory mood; this year not a single published work will officially enter the public domain of the United States.
Setting apart the question of being able to access a work, and the contract obligations that all too often trump copyright law, we should remember that the public domain holds much more than merely expired works. As I explained here, the public domain includes the unprotected aspects of any work. This includes unauthorized use of substantial portions of works, when the works are legitimately utilized according to domestic law. Said another way, when we use fair dealing appropriately, we are accessing the public domain.
Think about it – every book, every song, every image, “every original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work” is potentially public domain material. The public domain exists not just by virtue of a work’s copyright term, but also by the use we make of it.
Best wishes to all for 2011.