Happy Public Domain Day!
by Cameron N. Coulter
I confess, New Years has never been one of my favorite holidays. I don’t care for most of the typical New Years traditions, and in fact, I usually try to get to bed before midnight.
This year, however, we have something to celebrate that’s genuine, meaningful, and near to my heart: for the first time in over twenty years, we have a plethora of new work entering the public domain! (In the US anyway. Unfortunately, the situation is worse in Canada.) This brings me immense joy.
Check here for an extensive list of what’s now entered the public domain. A couple things that stick out to me include:
- “Yes! We Have No Bananas”, a song that I didn’t know I needed
- The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
And in particular, one lesser known item has now definitively entered the public domain, and this particular item brings me great joy: The Plays of Roswitha translated by Christopher St. John. More on this item (and a free ebook!) after brief rant about copyright laws.
In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) extended copyright terms in the US. For many works that were about to enter the public domain, the CTEA retroactively extended the copyright term by two decades. As the awesome public domain scholar Jennifer Jenkins writes, “For works published between 1923 and 1977 that were still in copyright, the terms were extended to 95 years from publication, keeping them out of the public domain for an additional 20 years” (2). Today, work from 1923 finally enters the public domain. Next year, work from 1924 will enter the public domain. And so on. (Assuming Congress doesn’t pass another misguided copyright law.)
Why is the public domain something to celebrate?
Works in the public domain can easily be used for all sorts of purposes, and they’re often cheaper and easier to access as well. Moreover, the public domain is vital to creating new art. All art is derivative to some extent. Think of mash-up videos on Youtube, or sampling in music, or how often popular songs are used in movies, or how frequently we retell fairy tales, or how often Shakespeare’s plays are produced. Art is always building off of and responding to what came before it, and when more works are in the public domain, we have more freedom to create and we can engage in new ways with our predecessors. There’s also a social justice element to this topic, as wealthy creators can often pay to license a copyrighted work, whereas poor creators are more reliant on the public domain.
When we keep work out of the public domain, as the CTEA did by extending copyright terms for twenty years, there’s a lot we lose. Not only do we restrict the artistic freedom and speech of modern creators, but we also lock up, forget about, and sometimes even lose our cultural heritage. As Jenkins writes, “keeping older works under copyright frequently frustrates, rather than promotes, their maintenance and dissemination” (7).
It’s often easier to access writings, music, and movies from 1920 than it is to access work from 1930 or 1940. (For example, Google reveals over 500 million search results for “music from 1920,” but less than 300 million results for “music from 1940.”) When works are unambiguously in the public domain, it’s easy to archive and share them publicly, but if a work may still be under copyright, there may be crushing penalties for sharing it. With older works, it can be prohibitively time-consuming and even sometimes a futile effort to determine whether they are still under copyright and, if so, who holds the copyright. This means that people who want to use a work (people who may even be willing to pay to license it) won’t be able to reuse or build upon the original work. By the time the work definitively enters the public domain, it may already be forgotten about in the public consciousness, or the original copies may even be lost.
I want to make one final point about why our current copyright terms are awful: most works only retain commercial value for a period of a few months or a few years before falling out of circulation. Sure, some works remain commercially valuable for decades, but most works lose their commercial value within five years and then are locked up under the copyright regime for another 90 years, during which time the public develops a cultural amnesia about these works. There is an easy fix to this problem: shorter, renewable copyright terms. As Jenkins writes, “Until 1978, the maximum copyright term was 56 years: 28 years from the date of publication, renewable for another 28 years” (4). Under such a system, works that retain commercial value could remain under copyright, but works that have fallen out of circulation would enter the public domain. We should return to a system of shorter, renewable terms.
As you can no doubt tell by now, I’m quite a nerd about copyright. I learned a ton about copyright and developed my interest for it by reading two books (both of which you can read and download online for free). I highly recommend:
- Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity by Lawrence Lessig, which examines the history and development of copyright laws in the US (and in particular examines how copyright laws responded to new technologies), and
- The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind by James Boyle, which is a fabulous book all about the public domain and how awesome (and imperiled) it is
If you’re interested in copyright law or the public domain but you aren’t ready to pick up a book, then check out Duke University’s Center for Study of the Public Domain.
The Plays of Roswitha
Roswitha is awesome. She was a 10th-century German canoness, dramatist, and poet, and she was one of the first people to write drama since antiquity. Among her other accomplishments, she wrote six plays in which she attempted to “Christianize” the work of the Roman comic playwright Terence. I first came across her work in college, and I’ve read and reread her a few times since. I reread her plays last year, and shared my thoughts about them in this blog post, so check that out for a more thoughtful reflection on her work.
In fact, I love Roswitha so much that I’ve even designed a epub of The Plays of Roswitha. Since the text is now officially in the public domain, I can now share it with you! Here’s a link to the ebook, and here’s the front-matter that I wrote for the ebook:
Roswitha, also known as Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, was a tenth-century German canoness, dramatist, and poet. She was inspired by the Roman comic playwright Terence, who wrote six farces filled with disguises, misunderstandings, and pagan debauchery. Upset by Terence’s immoral subject matter but also inspired by his well-crafted plays, Roswitha sought to “Christianize” his work by writing six plays of her own.
Of her six dramas, two are concerned with the conversation of nonbelievers (Gallicanus and Callimachus), two are concerned with the repentance of sinners (Abraham and Paphnutius), and two are concerned with the martyrdom of virgins (Dulcitus and Sapientia).
This edition, originally published in 1923, includes an introduction by Cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet (an English Benedictine monk and scholar), a critical preface by the translator (Christopher St. John), and prefaces written by Roswitha herself.
Photo by Cameron N. Coulter