The Incredible Shrinking Public Domain
The public domain — the wellspring of material that everyone is free to use and build upon — has been steadily shrinking. (You can read about uses of the public domain by artists, corporations, libraries, archivists, database creators, educators, and scholars here.)
In 2003, many of those who rely on the public domain had their hopes dashed by Eldred v. Ashcroft, the case that upheld the 20-year extension to the copyright term. (The effects of repeated term extensions are explored in more detail below.) The Constitution declares that copyrights must only be “for limited times” and that Congress can only create exclusive rights to “promote the progress” of knowledge and creativity. Despite those limitations, in Eldred, the Supreme Court held that Congress could retrospectively lengthen copyright terms – something that seemed neither “limited” nor aimed at promoting progress. (It is hard to incentivize dead authors!) But 2012 was to hold in store an even more grievous blow to the public domain. In Golan v. Holder, the Supreme Court held that Congress can remove works from the public domain without violating the Constitution. Yes, that is right – even if the public now enjoys unfettered access to a work, Congress is allowed to take that work out of the public domain and create a new legal monopoly over it. What’s more, the Court declared, Congress can do so even when it is clear that the new right “does not encourage anyone to produce a single new work”!
“If one reads Golan, one searches in vain for any limiting principle on Congress’s actions … Under the U.S. Constitution, says this case, the public domain is “public” only by sufferance. It may be privatized at any moment, at the whim of the Congress and without violating the Bill of Rights.”
This decision marked a significant departure from the “bedrock principle” that once works enter the public domain, they remain there, free for anyone to use and build upon. The law at issue in Golan – Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act – “restored” copyright to foreign works that had entered the American public domain for any of three reasons: the author failed to comply with copyright formalities, the U.S. did not have copyright relations with their country of origin at the time of publication, or they were sound recordings fixed before 1972. Golan was different from Eldred because while the works in Eldred were on the brink of entering the public domain, the works at issue in Golan were already in the public domain, and conductors, educators, film archivists and others were legally using them.
In upholding the law, the Golan majority explicitly endorsed the position that the public has no rights to the public domain. None. Under U.S. law as declared by the Court in this case, copyright is now officially “asymmetric.” While those who have copyrights enjoy vested, legally protected rights, “[a]nyone has free access to the public domain, but no one, after the copyright term has expired, acquires ownership rights in the once-protected works.” The majority could not seem to imagine that the public had rights other than “ownership” over a free, collective culture. In a dissenting opinion, Justices Breyer and Alito asked “Does the [Constitution] empower Congress to enact a statute that withdraws works from the public domain, brings about higher prices and costs, and in doing so seriously restricts dissemination, particularly to those who need it for scholarly, educational, or cultural purposes – all without providing any additional incentive for the production of new material?” Their answer was “No.”
What works were at issue in Golan? As Breyer described, “foreign works published abroad after 1923, of which there are many millions, including films, works of art, innumerable photographs, and, of course, books – books that (in the absence of the statute) would assume their rightful places in computer-accessible databases, spreading knowledge throughout the world.” Moreover, many of these were obscure orphan works (works with no locatable rightsholder) that are now effectively off limits to educators, film collectors, community orchestras, and database compilers who previously had the right to use them for free.
What are the limits on this decision? Could Congress recall the works of Shakespeare, Plato, Mozart and Melville from the public domain, and create new legalized monopolies over them? It is hard to imagine anything more contrary to the First Amendment – would privatizing Shakespeare by government decree abridge freedom of speech? – or to the attitudes of those who penned the Copyright Clause that limits Congress’s power to create new exclusive rights. Yet if one reads Golan, one searches in vain for any limiting principle on Congress’s actions. In this decision, Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion effectively denies the public domain any meaningful Constitutional protection. Under the U.S. Constitution, says this case, the public domain is “public” only by sufferance. It may be privatized at any moment, at the whim of the Congress and without violating the Bill of Rights.
In our opinion as legal scholars, this decision is shockingly cavalier in its dismissal of the importance of the public domain to free speech and to the progress of science and culture. It is also, again in our opinion, unsupported by the text, structure and history of the Constitution. Indeed, it seems flatly contrary to the dictates of the First Amendment and the limitations imposed by the Copyright Clause. Yet its message, however lamentable, is clear. If the public domain is to be protected in the United States, it is not going to be through the Constitution, but through reasoned argument, democratic pressure and legislative action. The public domain will be “public” only so long as the public demands it.
When Congress passed the first copyright law in 1790, the copyright term lasted for 14 years, with the option to renew for another 14 years if the copyright holder was still living. Before 1978, the copyright term was still 28 years from the date of publication, renewable once for another 28 years — but 85% of copyrights were not renewed and went immediately into the public domain. Under the 1976 Copyright Act, which went into effect in 1978, the term became 50 years from the date of the author’s death (with no need to renew to have the full term). And in 1998, the copyright term was increased to 70 years after the death of the author, and to 95 years after publication for corporate “works-for-hire”, locking up an entire generation of works for an additional 20 years. With these and interim extensions, the copyright term has been extended eleven times in the past fifty years.
Let’s assume for the sake of illustration that on average, an author creates a work at age forty and lives until age seventy, making the “life” part of the copyright term thirty years from the date of creation. Using this assumption, these extensions of the copyright term can be depicted in the following manner:
Each extension represents a winnowing of the public domain.
The 1998 term extension — which increased the copyright term to life plus 70 years and 95 years for corporate authors — was not only granted to future works. It was retroactively applied to works that had already been created and enjoyed their full copyright term, and were set to enter the public domain. None of these works will enter the public domain until 2019. The already diminished public domain has been frozen in time.
In addition to extending the copyright term, recent laws eliminated the requirement that authors “opt in” to copyright protection by affixing a basic copyright notice — the word “copyright” or © with a name and year next to it. This change took effect in 1989, and copyright now adheres the moment a work is fixed, whether or not the author wants to protect or sell the work, with no easy way to "opt out" — think of all the amateur videos, travel photos, blog postings, witty musings, jam sessions, or useful tidbits that people want to freely share and don’t intend to commercialize. Estimates are that under the opt-in system perhaps only 10% of works included a copyright notice; the remaining 90% went immediately into the public domain. Compare that to today, when 100% of works automatically have life plus 70 years or 95 years of protection and are off limits to artists, educators, archivists, remixers, scholars, and everyone else who might want to freely use them. As a result, the chart above only shows part of the story — the shrinking of the public domain has been exponential.
The exceptionally long copyright term has also created a growing limbo of “orphan works.” These works are still presumably under copyright (only works published before 1923 are conclusively in the public domain), but they are commercially unavailable and the copyright owner cannot be found (tracking down the copyright holders of older works is often impossible — read accounts of thwarted efforts to do so here). Orphan works comprise much of the record of 20th century culture — studies have found that only 2 percent of works between 55 and 75 years old continue to retain commercial value. For the other 98% of works, no one benefits from continued copyright protection, while the entire public loses the ability to adapt, transform, preserve, digitize, republish, and otherwise make new and valuable uses of these forgotten works. Read more about the current costs associated with orphan works here and here.
This steady erosion of the public domain is happening just as the Internet and digital technologies offer unprecedented opportunities to find, share, catalog, preserve, and remix its riches — foreclosing its enormous potential to feed creativity, innovation, democratic participation, and knowledge advancement.
NOTE: In recent years, the public domain has been diminished in many ways. Most relevant to Public Domain Day are the changes described above, but other expansions of intellectual property law have also contracted the public domain. These include changes in the subject matter covered by intellectual property (for example, patent protection has been extended to gene sequences and common business methods) and in the activities regulated (for example, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act backs technical controls that curtail personal, non-commercial, and traditionally “fair” uses of digital content). To learn more about these developments, see Professor James Boyle’s The Public Domain, available for free online here.
The Public Domain Day 2013 web pages by Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.