Happy Public Domain, 1923!

The District of Columbia is mainly laid out in a grid pattern, with streets running north and south, and east and west. Avenues, named for the states, cross these at odd angles, so that throughout the city (and especially downtown) the intersections carve out small triangular plots. They’re too small to build on, but if you’re lucky, you might get a parklet.

Near my apartment is one such parklet, but it’s a sad sight. It’s dedicated to Sonny Bono (1935-1998), singer, style icon and member of Congress. There was a piece of legislation named in his honor after his death that has been a more enduring legacy than the parklet, and far uglier.

Bono memorial plaque

Bare parklet from the south
Images available under license, CC-BY (Scott Wells)

Copyright law is complex and confusing, so I won’t try to unlock that here. (Neither do I recommend confusing that which is publicly available with the public domain, as some church people fall into.) But extending copyright so long benefits the few who own those rare evergreen properties, and effectively locks down useful but mostly forgotten works. Works about Universalism, say.

Under the law, works published before 1978 went from having a 75-year copyright term to 95 years. The yearly pipeline of new works entering the public domain was cut off for twenty years. And the old term was pretty darn long. For this reason, it’s easier to get books about Universalists (and much besides) from 1840 than 1940. (The issue of “orphan works” is problem, but past the purpose of this article.)

Twenty years! I remember thinking “That’ll be forever from now.”

Forever as it happens, is next week.

On January 1, 2019, new works will enter the public domain, namely works copyrighted in 1923. And each year, we’ll get another year’s works.

As a Universalist, I’m looking forward to these entering the public domain. I hope Google or some other scanning project has them in the wings to share on New Year’s Day.

If you want to read more about the works entering the public domain, Smithsonian magazine as a nice treatment.

"Life of de Benneville" for download

Unitarian minister and blogger Andrew Brown today posted a scanned PDF of the only in-depth biography of Universalist pioneer George de Benneville. I feel a bit bad because I’ve owned a copy for years — he paid dearly for his — and I never put it up.

He alludes to the problem of copyright — it was copyrighted in 1953. Now, since it was of that vintage, if it was never renewed, the work is in the public domain, and has been since 1981. That’ll take some research, but I think it’s a safe bet.

But if it was renewed and a copyright owner cannot be found, then this handy booklet becomes an orphan work and becomes good for nobody: not the unknown owner of the intellectual property and not good for historians, students or the general public who could not republish it. This is a serious intellectual property issue, and needs a remedy.

Until then, do download the book. (Again, I’d bet it’s in the public domain.) And I’ll scan my collection of mid-century Universalist imprints to see if there’s anything also orphaned but likely out of copyright.

NYT: Lessig on orphan works copyright

Stanford Law professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig had an opinion piece in the New York Times today worth reading, even if copyright issues aren’t your first concern. (“Little Orphan Artworks“)

The problem is that there quite a few mature works that are not old enough to be in the public domain but where the intellectual ownership is unknown. But there’s no registration and the proposed federal standard — to make a “diligent effort” to find the owner — is, in Lessig’s opinion, too much of a burden for those who might make use of a work that would other be lost to society. He proposes, within limits, a simplified, inexpensive and competitive registration system. I agree.

This matters for people in church life because so much of our soft culture — including songs, meditations, graphic images, recordings, sermons, liturgical elements, printed articles and the like — is of unknown or apocryphal origin. Can it, ought it be used? Or do we just turn a blind eye? An orderly system of rights maintenance makes for good boundaries and better practice.