Lines and Colors art blog

The Public Domain Review

The Public Domain Review: Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Eugène von Guérard, Rick Guidice (NASA), from books by Frederik Ruysch (uncertain of artist), Limbourg brothers (for Très Riches Heures), Arnoldus Montanus, Harry Clarke

I’d like to talk (well OK, rant) for a minute about copyright and the principle of public domain.

“Public domain” is a term referring to works that have passed out of copyright, or have been deliberately assigned to the public domain on creation (for example when created for the U.S. government), and therefore now belong to the public, i.e. all of us.

This is an excellent idea and has been part of US copyright law from the beginning. Copyright laws vary, sometimes confusingly, by country, but I think most or all allow for works to pass into public ownership over time.

As a creator and copyright holder myself, I will be the first to say that copyright is basically a Good Thing, allowing legal protection for the creator of a work from unauthorized use and distribution of their creation for their lifetime — and some years beyond. However, the U.S. Founding Fathers viewed ownership of intellectual property as a kind of monopoly, and felt that it should be limited for the good of the public.

The basic idea is that once the creator of a copyrighted work has died, and his or her heirs (who did not actually create the work) have had a sufficient time to profit off of their relative’s efforts, the work passes into the public domain and belongs to all of us — to copy, rework, disseminate and create variations of to our hearts content, and much to the enrichment of the culture.

Some public domain characters, for example, would include Robin Hood, King Arthur, The Three Musketeers, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Alice in Wonderland, and so on. Think of all of the inventive variations and stories we have from just those few examples.

Most artwork from history is in the public domain (though photographs of the artwork can be copyrighted by the photographers who took them or institutions to whom copyright for photographs has been assigned).

The copyright/public domain balance is a pretty good arrangement — the creator is protected for their lifetime, the relatives get to ride their coattails for a while, and then we all benefit from a richer public culture when ownership eventually passes to us.

Unfortunately, copyright laws that were originally meant to protect creators can be twisted into tools for advancing corporate power and greed, and the legislators who create and revise our laws seem easily manipulated by those with money and influence.

The large international media conglomerates (the same ones who have been trying to push the U.S. congress into ceding control of the internet to them with travesties of legislation like PIPA and SOPA), are also doing their best to defeat the original intention of the copyright laws, and keep pressuring legislators into extending the “sufficient time” that copyright extends past the creator’s death, to protect and advance their corporate profits.

Originally “life of the author plus 50 years”, the provision was extended to “life of the author plus 70” years by the 1998 Copyright Extension Act, not coincidentally just before the copyright for Disney’s Mickey Mouse was due to move into the public domain. Many referred to it as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”.

Those who are cynical about this process, myself included, assume that the time that copyright extends past the creator’s death will be extended again, not coincidentally before the profit making power of Mickey Mouse can be threatened with passing into public domain under the 70 year limit, with pressure applied to legislators by the same monied interests that extended it the first time (and it’s not just Disney that wants this, it’s all the big media conglomerates).

This would effectively mean that nothing that is not deliberately put into the public domain by its creator will ever again pass into ownership of the public, and that the principle of public domain as envisioned by the framers of the U.S. system of government has effectively been defeated.

There have even been a number of attempts by media corporations to claim ownership of public domain material, effectively stealing from us.

The history of the publishing, recording and other media industries is littered with cases of big companies stealing copyrights or copyrighted material from the original creators, or forcing them to give up their rights in order to be paid.

It’s another shameful example of wealth and power trumping the public good, and something that should always keep us wary of the intentions of these corporations (particularly when they’re promoting legislation to “protect creators” — cough cough).

That said, we still have an extensive backlog of material already in the public domain that we can share and enjoy; which, having had my little rant, brings me to the actual subject of the post, The Public Domain Review.

The internet (at least for the time being) is a cornucopia of public domain material; sites like Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, The Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg and hundreds of others offer a bounty of public domain material.

The Public Domain Review seeks to be a kind of curated guide to some of this material; its contributors offer articles on interesting finds and good sources of material. There is a page on the site about The Public Domain Review, that also talks about the principle of public domain.

There are sections for collections of topics, one of which is images. Though not yet extensive, as the site as just one year old, the collection is promising and will likely continue to grow. The selections are already nicely eclectic, as the examples above demonstrate.

(Images above: Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Eugène von Guérard, Rick Guidice (NASA), image from book by Frederik Ruysch (uncertain of the artist), Limbourg brothers (for Très Riches Heures), Arnoldus Montanus, Harry Clarke)

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3 responses to “The Public Domain Review

  1. Thank you for your “rant” Charley. This is something all of us artists need to stay abreast of.

  2. Yes, the rants are good and necessary. The web, as we know it and the very thing threatened by that PIPA, SOPA legislation is also the same tool used to fight it.

    As I mentioned in an earlier comment (your black out post)
    Our two California State Senators were supporting it.
    After it went down in defeat I (and everyone else I’m sure) received a rather standard political response letter from Barbara Boxer… blah blah blah.

    So far the Public Domain Review looks pretty good. I have to see how it grows over time.

  3. Thanks for posting this. It was very informative. I have found most discussions of copyright to be confusing. I’d never heard of the Mickey Mouse Law. I appreciate knowing about this new website.