The Importance of the Public Domain

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by Ben Arzate

When the United States entered 2019, several prominent works came into the public domain. Some of these include the films The Ten Commandments and Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim, the books Jacobs Room by Virginia Woolf and New Hampshire by Robert Frost, the song “Charleston” by Cecil Mack and James P. Johnson, and the musical London Calling! by Noel Coward. This marked the first time that published works entered the public domain since 1998.

Copyright law is complicated and I’m not a lawyer, so I apologize in advance for any mistakes, but to my understanding, a work owned by a corporation in the United States automatically enters the public domain after 95 years. Works owned by individual creators enter 70 years after the creator’s death. Already we can see who these laws are meant to favor.

This used to be 75 years and 50 years respectively until 1998 when the Copyright Term Extension Act was passed. This law is sometimes called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act because of the role the Disney corporation played in lobbying for it to keep the earliest Mickey Mouse films from becoming public domain.

The irony of Disney, a company that built itself on film adaptations of public domain fairy tales, lobbying to gut the public domain isn’t lost on me. Don’t let the cute mascots fool you. Disney is the Great Satan.

Copyright on an international scale is even more confusing. For example, as of right now James Bond has been public domain in Canada since 2015 but that will change as of next year, 2020, with a new trade agreement. This will force non-authorized authors who have published books in that time with Bond as a character to take their books out of print.

My own viewpoint is that ideas and concepts are not something that can really be “owned.” This isn’t to say that I support plagiarism, ripping off artists, or the like, but it seems absurd to me that an abstract like a fictional character can be “owned” the same way as a car, a phone, or your extensive dragon dildo collection.

This is why the things I’ve self-published are under “anti-copyright,” which is essentially the same as putting it directly into public domain. This is a somewhat radical view, I admit, so I’ll focus on why the public domain is essential even in the context of a system of copyright laws.

As I pointed out before, most of Disney’s classic films are based on fairy tales and stories that have been in the public domain for decades. They put their own spin on them, but it’s safe to say that Disney became the juggernaut it is on the backs of those stories.

Despite this, they’ve maintained an iron grip on their own copyrights, lobbying to extend the laws and even suing daycare centers for unauthorized murals of Disney characters. I told you they were Satan.

Let’s take an example of a character that’s been in public domain for a while now. Dracula was published in the U.K. 1897. It was published in the U.S. in 1899, however, because Bram Stoker and his publisher didn’t properly register the copyright, it was technically in the public domain in this country since. Though this wasn’t discovered until Universal bought the rights for an adaptation. Dracula went public domain in the rest of the world in 1962.

At least one classic film, Nosferatu, was adapted from the novel without permission and was nearly destroyed because of a lawsuit from Stoker’s estate. Thankfully, copies of it survived, but barring that, think of how many interpretations of Dracula have been created; over 200 films, several books and plays, the Castlevania video games, porn parodies.

Yet, despite all those adaptations, the original novel remains a well-loved classic and has never been out of print. One of Stoker’s descendants has even written an “official” sequel. Here, the public domain allowed many interpretations of a beloved work and has kept the original in the public consciousness.

When the public domain is undermined, it doesn’t incentivize innovation, it incentivizes creating works which are much more limited because there’s only so much one creator or company can do on their own with an intellectual property.

A work which may be loved by the fans will eventually fall out of the public’s consciousness if there’s nothing to supplement it. Fan works may help, but they’re generally only accessible to hardcore fans and the powers that be are apparently working to undermine those as well with things like Article 13 in the European Union, though that’s an issue of fair use rather than public domain.

While I would propose getting rid of copyright altogether, I realize that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. Until it does, I believe it’s important that a robust public domain is maintained. Here are some ways to do that. Make it known to the people in political office that they should oppose trade agreements that undermine it.

In addition, if you’re able to support online services that maintain public domain material like Archive.org, UbuWeb, and Project Gutenberg with either donations or volunteering, do so. If you’re a creative type, consider putting at least some of your work in the public domain or stipulating your work to enter it sooner than the default 70 years after your death.

All creativity is building on ideas that already exist and putting them in a straight jacket with copyright laws undermines not only the writers, artists, filmmakers, and so forth of the present, but the future ones as well.

2 comments on “The Importance of the Public Domain”

  1. Fascinating article! Valuing freedom of expression and accessibility of ideas over profit and corporate interests. The public domain is an alternative to the monopoly on ideas and expression. Much to think about here.

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