Reclaim the Public Domain

I sent this out by e-mail this morning to my Big List of Friends & Family — but on the off chance you’re not on that list, drop me a line so I can add you, and then read this — it’s something you should know about.

You may or may not be familiar with the sorry state of intellectual property law in the United States. One particularly bad element of the current state of affairs is the way that our system handles the “public domain” — the vast body of knowledge that is the property of all of us, to do with as we please.

The public domain is an incredibly important part of the world of information. It doesn’t stop creators from earning money from their work — it merely is there so that, once several decades have passed and the creator has had ample time to use that work to support him or herself, the work becomes available for others to pick up and build off of.

Think of it the same way you’d think of mulching a garden; once leaves have died and fallen from the trees, you turn them into mulch and they provide the nourishment that allows new life to spring up. Passing ideas into the public domain provides the same nourishment for creative works, allowing creators to use old works to create new, exciting interpretations. For example, many of Disney’s classic animated films — Cinderella, Pinocchio, Snow White, and so forth — are re-tellings of classic stories that Disney could re-use because they had passed into the public domain.

Today, however, the public domain is under siege. Copyright holders like Disney have decided that their works should never fall into the public domain — and, with mega-buck lobbying campaigns, have convinced Congress to see things their way. The result is that nothing has passed into the public domain in the United States since the late 1920s.

No great loss? Well, think of what we’d have lost if the works of Shakespeare were not in the public domain — “Romeo and Juliet” alone has seen at least two major retellings in the last 50 years (“West Side Story” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet”) that creatively re-interpreted the basic story, and the play itself is a staple of youth theatre. If Shakespeare’s estate were charging $1 million for the rights to perform “Romeo and Juliet” — if it were not in the public
domain — would anyone be performing it today? Would we have the two re-interpretations? Would children be able to learn about life and love from the story, the way they do today?

The answer is no — and we’d all be immeasurably poorer for it. But that’s the world the copyright cartels want us to live in — a world where creative works never become the property of all of us, even after their creators are dead and gone. And so far, they’ve been very successful in pushing that agenda.

Now, here’s what I’d like to urge you to do to help turn this situation around. Stanford University law professor Larry Lessig has been fighting to preserve the public domain for years now. He is currently working to promote legislation that would simply require copyright holders to pay a $1 fee — that’s right, one dollar — to renew their copyright after fifty years have passed. If they don’t pay, the work goes into the public domain.

Why a $1 fee? Well, in many cases, after fifty years have passed, works are essentially abandoned — books go out of print, films get stuck in dusty warehouses, and so forth. The $1 fee would provide a simple test for whoever technically “owns” that work — do they care enough about it to shell out a buck to keep owning it? If not — if nobody wants that work — it’s only fair that it fall into the public domain, so that other people who might find it useful can have access to it. And if it is something the owner wants to keep, $1 is a pittance in order to hold onto it.

Lessig’s proposal would keep giant corporations from being able to lock up every bit of creative expression behind waves of lawyers in perpetuity. It wouldn’t solve the entire problem — but it would be a big step forward. It strikes a good balance, allowing copyright holders 50 years to make money off their work, and then allowing them to keep earning off it if they care enough to put up a dollar.

I think this is a great idea, and something worthy of your support. That’s why I’m writing — to urge you to take a moment and help Lessig out in his fight.

To demonstrate public support for the proposal, Lessig has organized an online petition you can sign to show you care about reclaiming the public domain:

I strongly encourage you to read the petition, and, if you think it’s a sensible way to help start nourishing the public domain again, add your signature to the list. 11,000 people have signed since it went public last week, and every new signature sends a message to the folks in charge that we care about making sure that we leave our children a world where they can express themselves freely and build new ideas off the ideas of their forebears.

Anyway, I’ll stop there. I appreciate your taking the time to listen to my message, and think about this issue, even if you disagree with my conclusion — I’d rather have a world where everyone had thought about this issue and decided I was dead wrong than a world where nobody had thought about it at all.