Welcome to the Public Domain

We’re back to copyright today, because a new year welcomes a new group of people to the public domain. Works of authors who passed away in the year 1940 enter the public domain in many, but not all countries.

In a previous post, I discussed an editor’s incorrect assumption that anything posted on the Internet was automatically in the public domain. The Cooks Source issue which made the rounds a few months ago, highlighted the need for more copyright awareness. Copyright laws are complicated, and the average lay person doesn’t understand them. I won’t go into the details of copyright law here, that’s for those who have a better legal understanding than I. However, I can talk a little about the public domain.

When copyright laws were first created, the government recognized that for growth, copyright could not last forever. In order for societal growth, there would have to come a time when an author lost their copyright so that others could use the work and expand on it. Last year, if you wanted to publish the writings of the anarchist Emma Goldman, you might have needed permission from the copyright holder. Copyright laws vary by country, but in the United States, anything published before 1923 is in the public domain, regardless of the date of the author’s death. Goldman wrote and published prior to 1923, so some of her work was already in the public domain here in the U.S. However, some of her work was not published until after 1923. Changes in copyright law kept that work under copyright for a duration of the author’s life+70 years. Emma Goldman died in 1940. 1940+70=2010 so once 2010 was over and we entered 2011, the copyright on all of her works ran out.

This means that anyone in the U.S. and countries with similar laws can use the work for any reason without fear of prosecution for copyright violation. LibriVox volunteers can record the works for distribution, and Project Gutenberg can create electronic documents for downloading. This is the case for Goldman’s works in many countries. However, some countries have different copyright laws, so if you are outside the United States, you should check on your own country’s laws before using a work without permission.

How does this relate to libraries? Well, as digital readers become more prominent it is important for libraries to find ways to make digital distribution available for patrons. Works in the public domain can be distributed by anyone, without having to pay expensive licensing fees, and they can be created to work with any e-reader. DRM requirements keep books from companies like Overdrive from being available for Kindle users. Archives can similarly make documents and other items available electronically if the copyright has expired. As always, when in doubt, ask permission. Violating copyright laws, even unintentionally, can carry stiff penalties so don’t take unnecessary risks.

Happy creating!


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