The Importance of the Public Domain

Posted on 27 March 2011

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The Wide Sargasso Sea. Romeo & Juliet. The Eyre Affair.

These stories are derivatives. Clever, imaginative and classic derivatives, but derivatives nonetheless.

For those of us in the libre movement, there’s nothing wrong with being derivative. We understand that by standing on the shoulders of giants, we can create something better. We understand that culture means mixing and remixing the symbols and stories of others. We value and celebrate that.

But the existing copyright regime makes derivatives problematic. The length that copyright lasts has expanded from 28 years after publication to 70 years after the death of the author. Works were once quickly available for others to share and remix are now locked away, unused.

How is this locking away of our common cultural heritage hurting us?

Well, for one thing it makes new projects very difficult. Sita Sings the Blues used songs by Annette Hanshaw, which were released in the 1920s and 30s. When they were released, the law was that these songs would lapse into the public domain after 42 years.

Laws retrospectively extended that term; now it will be 2055 before they become public domain.

The rights to these songs are held by a cabal of companies, who cannot even agree among themselves who owns the songs or what share of which song is owned by which company. When Nina Paley wanted to release Sita Sings the Blues, she had to part with tens of thousands of dollars in licensing fees.

That would be fair enough if Hanshaw was still alive to benefit from the licensing, or if her relatives needed that money to support themselves. But Hanshaw died in 1985. She had over half a century to profit from her works. Isn’t it time they became free for us all to use?

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