Happy Public Domain Day

The first of January is Public Domain Day. The purpose of celebrating this day is to remember the wealth of culture that enters into the public domain every year. The list this year includes notables such as  Walter Benjamin his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is incredibly thought provoking, Mikhail Bulgakov – yes its time to reread The Master and Margarita, the artist Paul Klee and the Swedish Selma Lagerlof.

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University has a webpage dedicated to the day. The Center also points out that while in Europe works are entering the public domain changes in US law are preventing this from happening:

What is entering the public domain in the United States? Sadly, we will have nothing to celebrate this January 1st. Not a single published work is entering the public domain this year. Or next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that. In fact, in the United States, no publication will enter the public domain until 2019. And wherever in the world you live, you now have to wait a very long time for anything to reach the public domain. 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 most of the world, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus another 70 years. And we’ve changed the law so that every creative work is automatically copyrighted, even if the author does nothing. What do these laws mean to you? As you can read in our analysis here, they impose great (and in many cases entirely unnecessary) costs on creativity, on libraries and archives, on education and on scholarship. More broadly, they impose costs on our entire collective culture.

“We are the first generation to deny our own culture to ourselves. Almost no work created during your lifetime will, without conscious action by its creator, become available for you to reproduce or build upon.”

We have little reason to celebrate on Public Domain Day because our public domain has been shrinking, not growing. Samuel Beckett’s English-language version of Waiting for Godot, his existentialist play in which two characters wait for a Godot who never appears, was published in 1954 and would once have been entering the public domain on January 1, 2011. To quote Vladimir from the play: “But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—” 56 years later, we are still waiting.

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