Public Domain Day is January 1st!

Top Row (left to right): George Washington Carver; Sergei Rachmaninoff; Shaul Tchernichovsky
Middle Row (left to right): Sophie Taeuber-Arp; Nikola Tesla; Kostis Palamas; Max Wertheimer
Bottom Row (left to right): Simone Weil; Chaim Soutine; Fats Waller; Beatrix Potter

January 1st, 2014 was Public Domain Day. A day that serves as an important reminder that there are great benefits to being able to share and build on the creative works of others without having to seek permission or pay licensing fees.

Public domain is essential to the creation of new ideas and works. Although it’s important for an author or artist to control what happens to their work initially, the U.S. copyright law was designed to place limits on those rights in order to encourage new creative endeavors. 

Works are considered in the public domain in three instances: creators can choose to place their works in the public domain, releasing all rights and control over their creations. Some works are not eligible for copyright protection, such as government documents or common collections of data like a phone book. Finally, all works will pass into the public domain after their limited copyrights have expired. Once a work is in the public domain, we are free to copy, share, and enjoy those works. 

Why celebrate Public Domain Day on January 1st? It marks the day when the duration of copyrights for certain works have expired and are now in the public domain. So what has passed into the public domain in recent years? How about these gems:
  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • Ulyssess by James Joyce
  • The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
So what’s passing into the public domain this year? Unfortunately, nothing. The Center for the Study of Public Domain explains,
When the first copyright law was written in the United States, copyright lasted 14 years, renewable for another 14 years if the author wished. Jefferson or Madison could look at the books written by their contemporaries and confidently expect them to be in the public domain within a decade or two. Now? In the United States, as in much of the world, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus another 70 years. You might think, therefore, that works whose authors died in 1943 would be freely available on January 1, 2014. Sadly, no. When Congress changed the law, it applied the term extension retrospectively to existing works, and gave all in-copyright works published between 1923 and 1977 a term of 95 years. The result? None of those works will enter the public domain until 2019 and works from 1957, whose arrival we might otherwise be expecting January 1, 2014, will not enter the public domain until 2053.
The Center goes on to further explain that as a result of these legislative changes, works like Atlas Shrugged, The Three Faces of Eve, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas will not pass into the public domain this year. 

Want to learn more about copyright, public domain, and alternatives to sharing your work?  Try some of these resources:
Michelle Armstrong,
Scholarly Communications and Data Management Librarian

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