Written by Aaron Perry-Zucker on GOOD
The idea of the “public domain” goes all the way back to ancient Rome (probably further), where the law prohibited certain things from being owned by citizens because they existed for all to enjoy—like air, sunlight, and the ocean. As societies around the world advanced, copyright laws emerged to protect the interests of the content creators, and soon only work that was too old or uninteresting “fell” into the public domain.
In the United States, the first federal copyright legislation (the 1790 Copyright Act) set the maximum term of ownership for content creators at 14 years, with the ability to renew for another 14. Then Congress doubled that term (several times) before they changed it to the number of years after the life of the creator, then they added more time after that. Protecting copyright for 70 years after the creator’s death (as is the standard now) does a great job of protecting the large corporations and media companies with vaults of content to profit from, but this leaves that much less content for the rest of us to watch, remix, and enjoy without paying for it.
It doesn’t have to be so all-or-nothing. Content can and should be reasonably available to everyone—and content creators should be reasonably compensated. Luckily, new technologies for the creation and distribution of content are making this process more possible and democratic every day. Our latest project, Recovering The Classics, is an attempt to highlight just a glimpse of what’s possible when we embrace the public domain.
On May 28, we rolled out the beginnings of a crowdsourced collection of original book cover art for 50 of the greatest works of fiction in the public domain, including Moby Dick and Les Miserables, and we’ll be selling those books with their new covers as high quality ebook and paperback editions printed by the Harvard Bookstore. Because these classics have fallen into the public domain, artists from around the world now have the opportunity to re-cover these classic books and share them anew, without requiring a license from the copyright holder. Book lovers get fresh content, artists get exposure and get paid—and if the content creators were around today, they would see new audiences experiencing their work.
It’s time to reclaim the public domain for its original purpose: making information and beauty accessible to everyone.