Byte Rights: the Deprivation of the Public Domain

Amber Bouman

Every year in much of the world, a year's worth of human creativity becomes public domain. Not in America, though, where we are in the middle of a 20-year drought of creative freedom, on account of copyright term extensions.

The public domain is that bit of human creativity that everyone and no one owns, creative work not covered by intellectual property law. Works by Shakespeare, Verne, and Dickens, all the books of Project Gutenberg, are free to download, and free to use. The public domain is completely free speech that anyone can listen to, yell at, rework, build upon, sell, or share. It's also one of the reasons we have intellectual property in the first place. In America we give people temporary rights over what they create to encourage them to create more, so that in the long run we can have a bigger public domain. It's like an investment: We take less up front, but we get more public domain later. We're meant to get a year's worth of creativity every year.

But starting in 1976, we started choking off the public domain, making the 20th century a slow trickle. Then in 1998, The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension, a 20 year extension to all existing copyrights, closed off the public domain altogether. Nothing can flow into the public domain before 2019.

It doesn't punish the clever consumer of media. Our nefarious web browsers can take us to sites in Canada and Australia to download their public domains. It might be breaking a law, but it feels like buying a six pack just over the border of a dry county—technically illegal, but who cares? It really punishes creators, critics, and educators—people with reasons to share and build upon works, exactly the people copyright law was most intended to help.

2011 was meant to be a great year. Kurosowa's classic Seven Samurai was scheduled to belong to all of us, as was Lord of the Flies. But most ironic? Waiting for Godot. We're still waiting, and will be until 2050.

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