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Why We Celebrate Public Domain Day

screenshot of Library of Congress webpage that highlights "Free to Use and Reuse: Public Domain Films from the National Film Registry"
image CC0 Library of Congress

Have you ever seen an eighth-grade production of Romeo and Juliet? You may be interested to know that classroom productions would not be possible to put on in a cost-effective way if the works of Shakespeare were not in the public domain.

The public domain is a collection of plays, books, movies, music, images, data sets, and other materials that are free for anyone to use for artistic, scientific, educational, or even personal or  commercial reasons. On January 1, 2021, works published in 1925 will enter the public domain.

When we celebrate Public Domain Day, we are acknowledging the rich contributions to cultural heritage and shared knowledge. Often we hear about famous works (hello, Great Gatsby!), but other lesser-known works that are not commercially viable are also entering the public domain for the first time. An expansion of copyright protection enacted in 1998 means that works that would have entered the public domain 20 years ago have only begun to do so in recent years.

Public domain is inherent to the US copyright system, which is meant to promote the “progress of science and the useful arts.” Copyright protections mean that creators have exclusive rights over their works—for a limited time. Once a copyright term expires (or if a copyright term is not renewed) a work enters the public domain, and contemporary artists, scientists, educators, and others are free to use it. This may result in fresh interpretations of canonical works; new remixes and collaborations; and deeper understanding of original works through scholarship that builds on ideas that otherwise might not have seen the light of day.

Any discussion of the public domain must acknowledge that, historically, Black creators have been excluded from the benefits of copyright protection, their works “swallowed by the public domain,” in the poetic words of IP expert and law professor K.J. Greene. In anticipation of Public Domain Day 2021, Internet Archive along with Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Creative Commons, and SPARC hosted a (virtual) Public Domain Day celebration, with a focus on Black communities who have received less protection under copyright law. As Jennifer Jenkins, law professor and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, noted during the event, “Marginalized communities and African American artists in particular have been routinely excluded from the economic and reputational benefits of the system during the copyright term.” A recording of the event with closed captioning is available on the Internet Archive YouTube channel. Don’t miss Lateef Mtima’s critical framing of copyright and social justice, and K.J. Greene’s “Ode to the Public Domain.”

Continue celebrating the public domain with the hashtag #PublicDomainDay.

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