In Ambiguous Battle: The Promise (And Pathos) of Public Domain Day, 2014

By: Jennifer Jenkins

On the first day of each year, Public Domain Day celebrates the moment when copyrights expire, and books, films, songs, and other creative works enter the public domain, where they become, in Justice Brandeis’s words, “free as the air to common use.” Educators, students, artists, and fans can use them with neither permission nor payment. Online archives can digitize and make them fully available without the threat of lawsuits or licensing demands. Sadly, in the United States, as a result of copyright term extensions, not a single published work will enter the public domain in 2014. In fact, almost no works created during most readers’ lifetimes will become completely free for them to redistribute and reuse, unless the rights holders affirmatively decide otherwise.

In this Article, I will briefly trace the history and consequences of this legally imposed impoverishment of the public domain. But, I argue, this is only part of the story. Increasingly, private initiatives are trying to build zones of legal freedom that simulate some attributes of the public domain. At the same time, there are global copyright reform efforts to limit the negative effects of term extension, at least with regard to “orphan works”—those that have no identifiable or locatable copyright holder. Although these efforts are no substitute for a more complete reform of copyright, collectively, they do transform the legal situation substantially. Thus, while Public Domain Day in the United States may seem like an empty celebration, it is also a reminder of this newfound complexity in our copyright landscape.

Cite: 12 Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 1

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