December 10, 2013 | 1
Every year, on the first of January, copyrights on certain older creative works expire and the works pass into the public domain. In 2014, for example, a selection of pieces by writer Beatrix Potter and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff will, in some countries, become open for anyone to use, for any purpose, without prior permission. To celebrate the release of books, artwork, songs, photographs, and other creations, January 1st is recognized as Public Domain Day.
Older works automatically enter the public domain when their time comes. But for newer ones, joining the public domain requires an explicit designation by the author. This is because works are copyrighted at the time of their creation by default.
I am planning to mark Public Domain Day 2014 by releasing some of my older photographs from copyright. I encourage other creatives to do the same.
But wait! Aren’t I a big supporter of copyright?
Why yes, I am! I stand up for artists’ rights, including copyright. Many songs, paintings, photographs and other works exist only because selling copies and permissions allows creatives enough of an independent living to devote time to making those things. After all, the purpose of copyright is to foster the creation of useful things, and useful things are made by people who still have to eat.
But noting that creatives have a right to control their work, and that this right encourages new creations, does not also mean exercising this right in all cases is in creatives’ best interest.
First, we are a social species. Our lives are always a balance between satisfying selfish needs and giving back to the system that sustains us. Sure, we need to make a living. But we make a living in the context of our culture, and that culture does best with a certain level of giving as well as taking. Artists who give wisely can also be artists who receive.
Second, current copyright law ensures that most creative works, even from the most prolific of artists, simply disappear as though they never existed. The commercial portfolio of an artist is merely the tip of a large creative iceberg. My hard drive is full of photos that will never be processed like, for example, old photos that haven’t sold for a decade, and images I’ve retired for various other reasons. Artists’ closets similarly hold piles of abandoned sketch books. Keeping these to ourselves and sealing our vaults with a legal barrier is dooming these pieces to permanent obscurity. Surely passing along older, forgotten, underappreciated works will breathe life into them that they would never have had otherwise.
Third, and more selfishly, I have noticed an unexpected pattern about recent public domain additions. Intentional users of the public domain- those who expressly look in Wikimedia Commons and other repositories for free works- tend to be educated people who credit as a courtesy or simply as good scholarship. I was surprised, after my last public domain donation, to discover the newly-released images were just as likely to be credited back to me as were my copyrighted images. So while I realize little possibility of direct compensation from these salvaged works, they still serve admirably as advertising.
Anyway. Back to Public Domain Day.
I propose we all take a few minutes on January 1st to give something we created back to the common good.
Is it hard to donate a work to the public domain? Not at all. The easiest option is to upload your item to Wikimedia Commons and select the “public domain” license. Using Wikimedia Commons has the dual benefit of automating your declaration while simultaneously launching your gift into a database where people are likely to find it.
Your donation doesn’t have to be huge, and you don’t have to be a professional creator to participate. Your gift might be as small as a single sketch from art school you never published, or a set of wildflower photographs from a hiking trip in 2005, or that 2-minute long basement recording of a song you never perform any more. If you haven’t used these works by now, why not give others a chance?