Public Domain Day 2009

Wallace McLean offers his annual public domain day list of authors whose work entered into the public domain in Canada on January 1st.


  1. What is the real value of “public domain”?
    So Wallace McLean is jubilant over another group of copyrighted works going over to the public domain. I fail to see why he is so cheerful about it. What intellectual or economic advantage is there to the world because of that? Let’s take the music of Edward Plumb, composer for the film Bambi and many other Disney films. Now that Disney is no longer required to pay the composer or his estate, does McLean believe that the products that include Mr. Plumb’s work will now be less expensive to the public? We know they won’t. If Mr.McLean wants to start his own music company and record Mr.Plumb’s compositions, will he get a reduced rate from the musicians, recording studios, and distribution channels? No, they will charge the same. I could probably go through Mr. McLean’s list and for every intellectual property that has some monetary value, show that the only people who are financially affected by this loss of copyright are the heirs of that person. The Disneys and the other big corporations that use and exploit intellectual property for profit are just going to make more money. If I build a building it remains in my family forever or until it is sold. If I write a song, its financial return is finite, but only too my heirs; all the others who would exploit my work would still make money. It is kind of like the “you bring the meal and I will supply the knife and fork” deal. I have read some of Mr. McLean’s submissions on copyright and I am unimpressed with any of the arguments he has presented except for his example of Stratford and Shakespeare. The fact is that public domain is a concept that has outlived whatever usefulenss it had.

  2. The public domain is culturally and economically vital
    I’m “cheerful” for the same reason Disney, back in the day, was “cheerful” for the existence, and growth, of the public domain: it allows for follow-on creativity for the benefit of the living, unencumbered by the rights, which are often dead-letter, of the dead. Disney didn’t cut Snow White or Fantasia out of original cloth.

    The owners of copyright “lose” the copyright at the end of the term… but they, like anyone else, are free to publish the work to their hearts’ content. The only thing they lose is their monopoly. In the case of the vast majority of “works” — a very large class of cultural products under copyright law — the heirs that we are constantly called on to feel pity for don’t even know that they ARE copyright heirs, let alone that there is any cultural or economic value to those works. The expiry of copyright, like escheat or intestate succession in other fields of property law, ensures that dead-letter rights are weeded out, and that the interests of the living prevail.

    No type of property admits of perpetuity, not even the “building” example you use: if the owner of a building should die intestate, and even without any identifiable heirs, there are rules for determining who gets the building in the end. Yet there are no such rules for determining who owns the copyright in the letters that person wrote or the photographs they took during their lifetime. That, Terry, is why there is a public domain, and why it is important that copyrights expire after a finite, and relative to a human lifespan, short, period of time.

    And it’s sad that you can’t think of any examples of the cultural and economic value of the public domain, besides Stratford.

  3. Public domain is not the consequence of the passage of time, but the natural state. The term of protection for the copyright holder, on the other hand, is defined by the limitation of time. As with tax-benefits to those public collections where our heritage is eventually preserved, this arrangement recognizes eventually a pubic, not a personal, good.

    Copyright law in the US was not set up only to ensure rewards to the creative, but also to encourage creativity. Because we thrive on our past and culturally define ourselves by who we have been, the value in public domain is not merely economic. Those institutions with unique works, long in the public domain, might also much better serve the activities they profess to celebrate – creativity, enjoyment, education – by permitting unmediated access to high quality surrogates of public domain works in their collections. Why? Merely because it is possible in our new medium – the greatest benefit for the broadest public.