Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The public domain and why it's important

I've been thinking a lot about the public domain ever since I wrote my proposal for a reform of copyright law in the United States. In that proposal I discussed the value of allowing works to expire (I set a time frame of 30 years, but that number is arbitrary; the important element is the expiration), but I continue to hear corporations who own copyrights "explain" how their business will be in ruin, should their works expire, fueling the continued extension of copyright terms each time they are about to expire. But, this fails to explain why the public domain was considered valuable enough to enrich with expired works in the first place. What is it that we, the public and the creators of new works derive from copyright expiration and the public domain?

When we discuss the public domain today, it can be difficult to understand its true value because so few works expire today. However, the works which have already expired have had a deep impact on our modern culture. One need look no further than Walt Disney Corporation's success in adapting public domain works such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alice in Wonderland, and The Jungle Book. How is it, then, that we continue to argue that copyright terms must be extended in order to protect our cultural heritage? Is it possible that such examples are just outliers and the public domain doesn't actually benefit the public and our culture? Hardly. In order to illustrate that point, let me provide a few examples:

It's likely impossible to fully account for the impact of William Shakespeare in  modern culture. Hamlet, alone, has spawned dozens of adaptations for film and television, not to mention its continued performances and adaptations on stage. Film alone accounts for over fifty adaptations of the play! Overall, there are over 400 adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, just in film.

Since the copyright expired in 1956 there have been over 40 adaptations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and related books and characters in film, television and stage.

The script for Braveheart was based mainly on Blind Harry's 15th century epic poem, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.

The 1985 film, Ran, by Akira Kurosawa is based on legends of the daimyo Mōri Motonari, as well as on the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear.

The 1959 film, Ben-Hur, was the third film version of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, though I have not been able to determine if, in fact, the novel's copyright had expired by 1959, it does seem likely that it had.

The Wizard of Oz, Braveheart, Ran and Ben-Hur are all listed in the Internet Movie Database top 250 films of all time. How could it be that our popular culture could be so influenced from the public domain and yet we continue to argue that enriching the public domain by allowing works to expire is harmful?


The simple fact is that corporations fear losing any source of income, regardless of how much they might ultimately benefit from a copyright system that enriches the pool of works upon which they might draw. This is understandable, but should not be the basis on which we form our laws.