30 Days of DRM – Day 20: Public Domain (Circumvention Rights)

Concerns about the impact of anti-circumvention legislation on public access and use of public domain materials is frequently addressed by arguing that the legislation only protects works that are subject to copyright.  Since public domain materials fall outside that definition, works such as old public domain films that are enclosed with DRM could be lawfully circumvented.  Those assurances notwithstanding, without the inclusion of a public domain circumvention right, circumventing DRM on works that combine public domain content with materials still subject to copyright could give rise to liability.  In other words, pure public domain may be circumvented (provided you have the tools to circumvent), but once someone builds on a public domain work, they will benefit from the anti-circumvention provisions.

This is a particularly pronounced concern for historians, archivists, and film scholars since their ability to use public domain film or video may be limited by anti-circumvention legislation.  For example, the distributor of a DRM'd DVD containing public domain films along with an additional commentary track would likely argue that there is sufficient originality such that the DVD is subject to copyright and that anti-circumvention provisions apply. While even supporters of the DMCA acknowledge that anti-circumvention legislation should not be used to privatize the public domain, they are loath to establish a full exception or circumvention right for public domain materials, arguing that all works contain some elements of the public domain and that a blanket exception could be used to cover virtually any circumvention. 

A middle ground on this issue would include at least two provisions. First, a right to circumvent where the underlying work contains a substantial portion of public domain materials.  The definition of "substantial" will obviously be crucial, but policy makers and legislative drafters must err on the side of ensuring that the public domain is not inappropriately enclosed.  Second, given that anti-circumvention legislation encourages the use of DRM, the government should establish a policy that actively discourages its use on public domain materials.  This could be achieved by blocking the right to use such technologies where non-DRM'd versions of the same works are not reasonably available to the general public.

On this issue, it is (again) worth recalling the words of Supreme Court of Canada, which emphasized the importance of the public domain in Theberge, stating that "excessive control by holders of copyrights and other forms of intellectual property may unduly limit the ability of the public domain to incorporate and embellish creative innovation in the long-term interests of society as a whole, or create practical obstacles to proper utilization."  Anti-circumvention legislation that does not adequately preserve access and use of the public domain fails to meet Justice Binnie's test and a circumvention right for works that contain a substantial portion of public domain materials is therefore essential.


  1. WJM
    The R in DRM stands for “rights”. If the material is in the public domain, there are no rights to be managed, digitally or otherwise. There should be no “right” to use DRM on a work in which copyright does not subsist, whether or not that work is “reasonably available to the general public” in non-DRM format. Indeed, there ought to be both a positive right to circumvent DRM in a work which is so locked down, and a negative penalty for producing such copies of a work in Canada.

  2. Mr.
    Actually… commercial interests are still at stake. Example: let\’s say someone makes a buck restoring old recordings that are now in the public domain. Well these same people would have it in their interests to use DRM as protection mechanism. I personally don\’t like DRMs, but I\’m just saying that simply because something is in the public domain does not mean an effort won\’t be made to commercialize it.

    Oh, and if you\’re wondering why there\’s a comment here so many months down the road: I\’m looking for a particular song, which /should/ be in the public domain now (sole Canadian artist died in 1941.) Came across this.