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What is the Public Domain? And Why Should We Care About It? January 21, 2009

Posted by Rebecca Kahn in Features.
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Discussions around heritage and heritage material often revolve around the idea of the Public Domain, and what material should or shouldn’t be released into it. But what exactly is the Public Domain, and why does it matter?

“Public Domain” refers to those works that the public has an unlimited right to copy, adapt and share. The Public Domain includes works that are not in copyright, either because they have never been under copyright, or because the term of copyright under which they had been protected has expired. The Public Domain also includes creative and intellectual elements, such as the plots of a book or film, which cannot be subject of copyright, or other intellectual property. The Public Domain is essentially, public property and is free for anyone to adapt, build upon, copy, distribute and perform.
Many important historical works are part of the Public Domain. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India are Public Domain works, as are the compositions of Mozart, the plays of Shakespeare, the Mali Manuscripts from the 13th century and the novels of Dostoevsky.  The Public Domain is important because it is an accessible, usable collection of the historical, scientific, technological and cultural works of a society. Having access to works like these fosters learning, innovation and the development of new works and encourages creativity. Having access to a rich collection of Public Domain works means that teachers can make materials available for students, publishers can publish low-cost volumes, libraries can develop digital repositories and researchers can access and use each other’s information without having to worry about the cost and logistical issues involved in finding rights holders and getting their permissions to adapt or use the works.

The Public Domain, however, is under threat. The constant extension of copyright terms for longer periods means that less work is entering into the Public Domain globally, and access to important cultural, scientific and creative knowledge is restricted. The creation of new categories of rights also reduces the Public Domain.

One way of building the Public Domain is to encourage artists, musicians and other creators to release some of their work without any copyright, and explicitly state this on the work. Another way to help foster the growth and health of a Public Domain is for people to donate material. The Internet Archive, an online archive of material on the internet, is a good example of a donation-based Public Domain repository. Another example of an online Public Domain repository is the Open Library project, a sub-project of the Internet Archive, and an attempt to build an online repository of digitised, Public Domain books. At the time of writing, the Open Library project features the full text of over a million books online, for anybody to access, read and reuse. Project Gutenberg, a project to provide free e-books is similar, and has a huge collection of Public Domain books.

Image: Steve Biko by caribbeanfreephoto on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0