January 1st – Cultural Redistribution

Nipper listening to the Berliner phonograph

by Francis Barraud (1956-1924)

Every year, on the 1st of January it is cultural redistribution all over the world. On this day, the commercial rights held by the grandchildren of great authors expire. From now on these works may be copied, adapted, sapmled and mashed-up, they are no longer private property but they belong to the Commons, they fall into — or should I rather say: rise up to — the Public Domain. Hence January 1st has been celebrated as Public Domain Day since some years now.
In 2010, the works of 563 authors enlisted in the Public Domain Works registry will become part of the Commons, according to the simple rule ‘year of death plus seventy’ (for the exact rules per country Public Domain Calculators can be found here). Among those on the list are Sigmund Freud (Traumdeutung, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur) and William Butler Yeats (The Land of Heart’s Desire, The Winding Stair). On Project Gutenberg, the entire oeuvre of these authors has been prepared for access by eager readers (see here and here).
Nonetheless, several commercial and surprisingly also non-commercial entities are making efforts to restrict, hinder, or charge fees for the enjoyment of the Public Domain. One recent example is the exchange of letters between the British National Portrait Gallery and Wikipedia over digital photographs of paintings.
Public Domain Day is therefore also a moment to recall that the Public Domain, as Jessica Litman said, is ‘the law’s primary safeguard of the raw material that makes authorship possible’ (J Litman, ‘The Public Domain’ (1990) 39 Emory Law Journal 965, 967). The Politcal Salon on ‘Time for the Commons’, organized by the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, produced the manifesto ‘Gemeingüter stärken. Jetzt!’ (‘Strengthen the Commons. Now!’). Its demands include to protect the Commons from destruction and over-use, and that no one may be excluded who is entitled to access and use the shared resource or who depends on it for basic needs. The manifesto calls to re-conceptualize the prevailing concept of property rights, giving the commoners‘ usage rights a higher priority than corporations‘ property rights.
At www.publicdomainday.eu, COMMUNIA – The European Thematic Network on the Digital Public Domain – will post another Public Domain Manifesto. It will be based on the concept that the Public Domain is the rule and copyright the exception. The manifesto will develop consequences for copyright law and will make recommendations for protecting the Public Domain, such as the reduction of the term of copyright protection or for effective measures to release orphan and out-of-print works to the Commons. The manifesto will be available from 18 January.