ENDitorial: Copyright vs Public Domain-copyright as a barrier to culture?
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Deutsch: ENDitorial: Urheberrechte vs Gemeinfreiheit als Kulturhindernis?
"The book, as a book, belongs to the author, but as thought it belongs -- the word is not too big -- to the human species. Any intelligent being has a right to it. If one of the two rights, that of the writer and that of the human spirit, must be sacrificed, then certainly it should be the right of the writer, as the public interest is our sole preoccupation, and everyone, I declare, should come before us" - Victor Hugo, Opening speech of the International Literature Congress of 1878
For many of us, New Year means good resolutions for some even new beginnings but it also means new works of art in the public domain. This year - and just to name a few - James Joyce, Maurice Leblanc, Virginia Woolf, Robert Delaunay, Sherwood Anderson, Henri Bergson have entered the public domain.
To be in the public domain: what does it concretely mean? Public domain works are part of a citizens' cultural heritage, therefore their use is not restricted - as they would be when they are protected by copyright. Practically, it means that people can freely copy, translate, adapt or use the works of the artists, writers or musicians.
Entering the public domain leads to a wider, access to cultural content. The public domain promotes education and knowledge. It is a factor of new and further creation, knowledge and innovation. Some of these elements are of great importance and further enhance access to culture. Once a work has entered the public domain, new editions and republications flourish, giving the opportunity to a larger audience to access society's cultural heritage. 2010 turned into a year of Freud. When Sigmund Freud's works finally entered the public domain, publishers rushed to publish, commissioned new translations and subsequently sold new versions of his books.
All in all, public domain enables a wider and higher circulation of artistic, literary, dramatic, musical works, encouraging access for all. And last but not least, public domain also has an economic value. Some publishers indeed have specialised their business model on publishing works for which copyright protection has expired. This is true not only for the book publishers but also in the music industry.
A crucial question therefore arises: If public domain is so important and so beneficial, why do we have to wait for so long after the artist's, painter's or writer's death to have works of art finally in the public domain?
The original idea behind copyright monopolies was to favour creativity and to enable artists, writers and authors to continue to create. This would be a great and praiseworthy purpose if only it had not have been turned away from its primary goals. Copyright is currently the rule and public domain is the exception.
The content industry continually asks for, and receives ever-longer copyright terms, and consequently the public domain continually decreases. Just recently and after a strong lobby from the music industry, the European Union decided to extend copyright for performers and producers from 50 to 70 years. Turning back on Victor Hugo's idea of his work as a shared good, some in the rightsholders lobby are pushing the limits of protection, and moving cultural goods out of the reach of society. They argue that it serves the economy, helps to keep jobs and improves the investment in new talent. However what they miss here is that access to the works of the artists they claim to represent is restricted to the public, to other publishers or other record companies. In the end, this only serves the majors and the most famous artists, who are least in need of this "protection". Finally, while these dominant industries claim that term extension is needed in order to invest in new talent, the policy of ever longer copyright extension does not create any incentive to do so. In the absence of such incentive, major record companies will continue to invest only in performers that will bring in long-term of revenues, so alternative and less popular musicians will be left out, undermining cultural diversity.
Nowadays, the protection of works subject to copyright is based not on their date of publication but on the death of the authors, and the life expectancy has improved, so the public domain is proportionally diminishing. If copyright is to incentivise creation, what is the logic behind remunerating artists for ever-longer periods after their deaths? The entire logic behind the copyright protection has been subverted.
Cultural works are being locked away from the public and a greater barrier is being built between the public and their culture. If copyright is meant to defend culture and creation, it should not be used to create barriers between citizens and their heritage.
Freud in the public domain (only in French, 27.01.2010)
EDRi-gram: New rules on term of protection of music recordings (21.09.2011)
The progressive weakening of the public domain (only in French, 2.01.2012)
Public domain calculator
(Contribution by Marie Humeau - EDRi)