Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why you should care about the public domain

The public domain is a fairly obscure topic, but one in which Americans should take an interest.
It involves who owns and controls ideas and our shared culture.
Patents and copyrights used to be on equal legal footing. Patents protect inventions. Copyrights protect works of art. The government gives each a limited period of exclusivity, during which time it enforces a legal monopoly for the patent and copyright holders.
When the protection period is over, others are free to improve upon those ideas.
With patents, this is well understood. When patents expire on drugs, computer technology and other things, creativity flourishes and the public benefits.
The same holds for creative works. Artists are able to freely explore the concepts in off-copyright works without fear of reprisals from the original rights-holders. It provides opportunities for young filmmakers, theater groups, cartoonists and others to present familiar stories in fresh ways.
Human culture has been built over time by the works of others. That includes all forms of ideas – scientific, creative, political, legal, etc.
The website Everything Is A Remix has an ongoing project to show how copyrighted stories like “Star Wars,” “The Matrix” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are not as original as they seem. Movies, music and other modern creative works build on the ideas of others and borrow elements from them.
Everything Is A Remix is the work of New York-based filmmaker Kirby Ferguson. He’s done a terrific job explaining a complex issue.
The website TechDirt also is a good resource for pointing out problems and issues with modern copyright laws.
While term lengths for patent protection have remained stable. Term lengths for copyright protection regularly get extended by acts of Congress.
If you want a clear example of how lobbying interests control Washington look no further than the entertainment industry’s sway over Congress on copyright term extensions.
Originally, copyrights in the U.S. lasted 14 years, with the right to renew for another 14-year term if the copyright holder was still alive.
Now, for works created after Jan. 1, 1978, U.S. copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For works created for hire (such as for Disney), the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication.
When Walt Disney’s first Mickey Mouse cartoon “Steamboat Willie” (1928) approaches the end of its copyright protection, you can count on Disney to push for another extension.
Public domain works today are those published before 1923. Everything after that is locked down by copyright extensions.

Here is a recap of my recent posts on copyright and the public domain:

Hollywood hot for fairytales (Jan. 29, 2012)

Pop culture artists love to reimagine fairytale characters (Feb. 1, 2012)

Science fiction, horror and fantasy stories in the public domain (Feb. 6, 2012)

More public-domain adaptations: Peter Pan, Mysterious Island and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Feb. 7, 2012)

Hollywood loves free stories like Robin Hood, Tarzan and Pinocchio (Feb. 9, 2012)

Hollywood’s cheat sheet: Public domain works (Feb. 12, 2012)

Public domain tapped out? Try making movies based on historical figures (Feb. 14, 2012)

The dark side of fairy tales (Feb. 15, 2012)

Get ready for 9 new ‘Frankenstein’ movies and TV shows (Feb. 19, 2012)

How Hollywood remakes public domain stories and characters (Feb. 20, 2012)

Photo: Publicity art for actor-director Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus,” based on a play by William Shakespeare.

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