January 1, 2022 was not just New Year’s Day in the intellectual property world. It also marked Public Domain Day, when a new wave of works became unlocked from the registered copyrights. In 2022, this means that songs, books, films, and other expressive works from 1926 are now in the public domain.
What Is the Public Domain?
Put simply, materials in the public domain are not protected by copyright, trademark, or patent laws. You can use them without paying licensing fees or getting permission from the creators. “Use” encompasses publication, translation, annotation, adaptation, and quoting excerpts, to name a few.
Something important to note: even though use is free, it is considered respectful to cite your source. And you may still sometimes pay for public domain works. For example, you might buy a new print edition of a novel or movie tickets to see a film version of a story that’s in the public domain, like War and Peace.
Does the Public Domain Hurt Creators?
No. On the contrary, it supports creators. Public domain and intellectual property laws work together rather than against each other. It is the job of the Copyright Office and Congress to find a balance between the commercial gains of individual authorship and the social gains of shared innovation.
This is why some folks argue against the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998. Prior to this law, copyright registration protected a work’s revenue for life plus 50 years. After the passage of this act, however, copyright protection was extended to life plus 70 years for individual authors, and life plus 95 years for corporate authors.
This preserved revenues for a small percentage of authors whose work was still profitable 55-75 years down the line. For the majority of copyrighted works, it locked them into a space in which their presence was no longer up to date, but they could not be released freely into the public space without fear of copyright litigation if duplicated, published, or reused.
The Benefits of Public Domain
For the sea of works whose authorial benefits have dropped off, it actually behooves them to enter the public domain. In this way, texts, films, songs, and artwork (to name a few items) are more likely to be preserved. Preservation forms just one of the benefits of the public domain.
Accepting the usefulness of the public domain means accepting a fact about creation and storytelling: most of it is unoriginal. Many stories repurpose the bones of other stories.
A classic example is Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe being transformed into Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (with a dash of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – being transformed into West Side Story. How many film retellings have you seen of classic tales like A Christmas Carol or Alice in Wonderland? Suffice it to say: ideas build on other ideas.
The public domain designation also creates avenues for richer education and open government.
Consider educational texts. Currently licensed textbooks cost students much more than ones in the public domain; the publishers have to recover licensing fees, after all. And public domain materials, like the writings of Isaac Newton, save teachers from expending considerable time and financial resources in order to share them.
Government works are automatically in the public domain to serve an open, democratic government. You can freely access legislation, court hearings, and other legal opinions from public officials.
Stop to Appreciate the Public Domain Knowledge Around You
Thanks to the public domain, we can freely access:
- NASA’s Flickr
- Many works of classic literature
- The Library of Congress National Jukebox
- Search engine niches like Google Books
So take a moment out of your day to use these open and majestic sources of knowledge, creativity, and inspiration. It just may provide you with your next big idea.