Monday, January 5, 2009

Public Domain Day 2009!

(above: a beautiful illustration, now in the PUBLIC DOMAIN, of Raggedy Ann)

Let me start by wishing you a belated Public Domain Day! This is a joyous day for many, and I celebrated by reading a Raggedy Ann book.

First things first, you might wonder what Public Domain Day actually is. The story starts with some rudimentary copyright law: copyright protection for some works extends for the life of the author plus 70 years. That means that, for instance, if I wrote a children's book, the book would enter the public domain and be freely available, no limitations, 70 years after my death, on January 1st of that 70th year.

Things get more complex immediately after that in the story of copyright (for instance, if a publishing company owned the rights to my work, or if any part of the work became a trademark, or even if the work were created between certain years more recently, there are tons of extra protections). But in general, on January 1st each year, a new crop of artists' 70-years-after-death protection lapses and their self-published work enters the public domain.

The biggest names in this year's Public Domain Day celebrations are Raggedy Ann and Popeye the Sailor. Granted, most of the material associated with these characters is still under protection via other companies and not the creators, but the first self-published stuff concerning these characters is all free and clear now!

I know you might find it hard to get excited about a new Raggedy Anne book finally entering the public domain. But Public Domain Day might one day make a difference in your life.

Imagine a party scene, maybe in a film, with a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday To You," the classic birthday ballad. Most people don't know that "Happy Birthday To You" is still under copyright. Anyone who uses it in a film has to pay to do so (apparently, according to the Wiki, something like $10,000). Any film in which you have seen this song had to pay a royalty to use the song, and you had to pay the (admittedly very small) increased ticket price associated with higher film royalties.

That's why Public Domain Day is so exciting: on Public Domain Day in 2030, any filmmaker or songwriter or performer can freely use "Happy Birthday To You." That song will finally enter the public domain in approximately 20 years.

So this Public Domain Day, take a moment to celebrate the newest additions to the public domain (a somewhat comprehensive, complex list is here), but also take a moment to consider the arguably lousy state of copyright in the U.S., where an original artwork or composition can be off limits for the better part of a century after its creator has passed on.

Now go out and raise a can of spinach in celebration of Popeye's recent partial liberation into the public domain. Happy Public Domain Day!

1 comment:

  1. I wish I knew about Public Domain Day in regards to girls like when they will give me their phone numbers.