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It has taken 20 years, but we finally can celebrate Public Domain Day by welcoming works that are no longer restricted by copyright into our shared cultural heritage. The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 scooped up two decades-worth of material about to enter the public domain and shoved it back under copyright protection, largely to satisfy a few rightsholders – corporation and estates of dead writers and artists – who controlled profitable works. Disney, which has made an entertainment empire largely from exploiting works in the public domain, was a force behind the 1998 extension, which is why it’s often known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.

The 1998 law was only the most recent extension of copyright. In its original form it lasted 14 years, with an option to renew for another 14 years. Thanks to extensions and changes to procedure that mean things are copyrighted automatically, no registration required, a large portion of our culture is locked up. This is counter-productive. Most copyrighted works aren’t profitable decades after publication. Duke University’s informative Center for the Study of the Public Domain estimates “only 2 percent of works between 55 and 75 years old continue to retain commercial value. For the other 98% of works, no one benefits from continued copyright protection, while the entire public loses the ability to adapt, transform, preserve, digitize, republish, and otherwise make new and valuable uses of these forgotten works.” Anyone who has tried to seek permission to quote extensively from a work or include a photo or image in a publication knows the research can be a rabbit hole; after a few decades many works become “orphaned” – it’s not clear who owns the rights, if anyone does, but making a mistake could lead to a fine of up to $150,000 per infringement. Talk about a chilling effect.

While most of 20th century culture remains locked up or in an uncertain state, it’s worth celebrating that we’re reached the end of our latest rollback period. A year’s worth of culture is now available for remixing and reuse, and more should become available annually. Works entering the public domain this week include the films Safety Last (Harold Lloyd’s classic silent film) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a collection of Robert Frost’s poems, and the sheet music for “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”  You can browse a longer list of works from 1923 at Hathi Trust – some 53,000 of them.

This is all a bit baffling to students who are used to things being freely available online, habituated to remixing and combining works, because that’s kind of how the web works. I’ve found it awfully hard to convince them (and let’s be honest, to convince faculty, too) that most stuff online – images and videos as well as text - regardless of how freely shared is copyrighted. It’s just so easy to copy or embed, and chances are there are multiple copies of whatever it is you’re wanting to reuse because someone already copied it. In many cases, the original creator didn’t know all rights to that picture or blog post were reserved to them automatically.

How this will shake out in the long run is hard to predict, but for now I want to make a pitch to anyone who posts their work online (assuming they haven’t given the copyright to a publisher) and who doesn’t mind sharing to consider explicitly labeling their work with a Creative Commons license. You retain copyright, but can choose what rights you want to reserve: is it okay to reuse? To remix? Or do you want it to be unchanged, or copied only if it’s for for a non-commerical purpose? I slap a CC license on pretty much everything, including these columns. (Inside Higher Ed has first publication rights, but after that they are super generous to bloggers.)  Our library’s website and our subject guides – they all carry a Creative Commons license, as do any course materials I’ve created and put online. Right now we’re adapting Mike Caulfield’s Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers to create a textbook for a new course, and some of the chapters will be written by students. We couldn’t do this if Caulfield hadn’t released it with a CC license – thanks, Mike!

I’ll close by exercising a little bit of license of my own – sharing a poem that is at last indisputably in the public domain.

The Lockless Door
by Robert Frost

It went many years,
But at last came a knock,
And I thought of the door
With no lock to lock.

I blew out the light,
I tip-toed the floor,
And raised both hands
In prayer to the door.

But the knock came again.
My window was wide;
I climbed on the sill
And descended outside.

Back over the sill
I bade a "Come in"
To whatever the knock
At the door may have been.

So at a knock
I emptied my cage
To hide in the world
And alter with age.


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