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Working Group Stories: Public Domain, Open Sustainability, Open Education

Katelyn Rogers - September 6, 2013 in WG Open Education, WG Public Domain, WG Sustainability, Working Groups

Working Groups Stories, a blog series we started back in May, is our way of showcasing the incredible work being done in all different domains across the Open Knowledge Foundation Network. Working groups are domain-specific groups, promoting, defining and producing open knowledge in everything from Archaeology to Shakespeare.

okf-booksprint-data

Public Domain Working Group

The Public Domain Working Group has been busy over the last few months, working in partnership with OKF France and the French Ministry of Culture to develop a French Public Domain Calculator. Public Domain Calculators are tools to help users determine whether or not a piece of work is in the public domain. In France, this comes at an important time, as we enter the period when most of the works produced by authors who died during the second world war will (theoretically) enter the public domain. However, French copyright law stipulates that authors who died for France during the war have extended terms of protection. This complication could lead to a number of works being incorrectly assumed to be in the public domain.

The value of Public Domain Calculators extends far beyond the particularities of national copyright law. Calculators help identify and promote good practices and open data policies within cultural institutions. They will be used by cultural institutions as a benchmarking tool to identify flaws and gaps in the structure or content of their bibliographical metadata, to increase the accuracy of the results. If you are interested in finding out more about public domain calculators or want to build one for your country, please get in contact at getinvolved {at} okfn.org or join our Public Domain Mailing List.

Open Sustainability

The Open Sustainability Working Group has been growing fast since its launch less than a year ago, with activity in several countries including Finland and Italy and a new twitter account (@OpenSusty). The group are key in the OKFN global #OpenCO2 campaign to bring more transparency to emissions tracking, so big polluters are held to account. The new local Open Sustainability group in Finland has met with energy companies about access to personal energy use data, and is interested in opening up sustainability and climate data and modelling. Energy software has been built using open data at Energy hack events in Germany and Finland. Next up is the Sustainability and Development topic at OKCon this month in Geneva. Join the growing conversation on the Open Sustainability mailing list and follow us @OpenSusty.

Open Education

Open Education, the newest addition to the working group family, has been busy despite its official launch still being a few weeks off! This week, the group organised an Open Education Handbook mini-booksprint in London, inviting open education experts along to share ideas and write down copy relating to various aspects of open education: resources, data and pedagogy. The event resulted in an initial outline of the book to be drafted; the final edited version is due for October 2014. If you are interested in hearing more about the Open Education Handbook or would like to contribute to it then join the Open Education Working Group mailing list for updates.

Cover image: The O-Pen, by O’Khoas creations, from the Public Domain Remix. Illustration: OKF Booksprint Data, by Kevin Mears. All CC-BY

Did Gale Cengage just liberate all of their public domain content? Sadly not…

Jonathan Gray - January 9, 2013 in Featured, Free Culture, Legal, Open Access, Open/Closed, Public Domain, WG Public Domain

Earlier today we received a strange and intriguing press release from a certain ‘Marmaduke Robida’ claiming to be ‘Director for Public Domain Content’ at Gale Cengage’s UK premises in Andover. Said the press release:

Gale, part of Cengage Learning, is thrilled to announce that all its public domain content will be freely accessible on the open web. “On this Public Domain Day, we are proud to have taken such a ground-breaking decision. As a common good, the Public Domain content we have digitized has to be accessible to everyone” said Marmaduke Robida, Director for Public Domain Content, Gale.

Hundreds of thousands of digitized books coming from some of the world’s most prestigious libraries and belonging to top-rated products highly appreciated by the academic community such as “Nineteenth Century Collection Online”, “Eighteenth Century Collection Online”, “Sabin America”, “Making of the Modern World” and two major digitized historical newspaper collections (The Times and the Illustrated London news) are now accessible from a dedicated websit. The other Gale digital collections will be progressively added to this web site throughout 2013 so all Public Domain content will be freely accessible by 2014. All the images are or will be available under the Public Domain Mark 1.0 license and can be reused for any purpose.

Gale’s global strategy is inspired by the recommandations issued by the European reflection group “Comite des sages” and the Public Domain manifesto. For Public Domain content, Gale decided to move to a freemium business model : all the content is freely accessible through basic tools (Public Domain Downloader, URL lists, …), but additional services are charged for. “We are confident that there still is a market for our products. Our state-of-art research platforms offer high quality services and added value which universities or research libraries are ready to pay for” said Robida.

A specific campaign targeted to national and academic libraries for promoting the usage of Public Domain Mark for digitized content will be launched in 2013. “We are ready to help the libraries that have a digitization programme fulfill their initial mission : make the knowledge accessible to everyone. We also hope that our competitors will follow the same way in the near future. Public Domain should not be enclosed by paywalls or dubious licensing terms” said Robida.

The press release linked to a website which proudly proclaimed:

All Public Domain content to be freely available online. Gale Digital Collections has changed the nature of research forever by providing a wealth of rare, formerly inaccessible historical content from the world’s most prestigious libraries. In january 2013, Gale has taken a ground-breaking decision and chosen to offer this content to all the academic community, and beyond to mankind, to which it belongs

This was met with astonishment by members of our public domain discussion list, many of whom suspected that the news might well be too good to be true. The somewhat mysterious, yet ever-helpful Marmaduke attempted to allay these concerns on the list, commenting:

I acknowledge this decision might seem a bit disorientating. As you may know, Gale is already familiar to give access freely to some of its content [...], but for Public Domain content we have decided to move to the next degree by putting the content under the Public Domain Mark.

Several brave people had a go at testing out the so-called ‘Public Domain Downloader’ and said that it did indeed appear to provide access to digitised images of public domain texts – in spite of concerns in the Twittersphere that the software might well be malware (in case of any ambiguity, we certainly do not suggest that you try this at home!).

I quickly fired off an email to Cengage’s Director of Media and Public Relations to see if they had any comments. A few hours later a reply came back:

This is NOT an authorized Cengage Learning press release or website – our website appears to have been illegally cloned in violation of U.S. copyright and trademark laws. Our Legal department is in the process of trying to have the site taken down as a result. We saw that you made this information available via your listserv and realize that you may not have been aware of the validity of the site at the time, but ask that you now remove the post and/or alert the listserv subscribers to the fact that this is an illegal site and that any downloads would be in violation of copyright laws.

Sadly the reformed Gale Cengage – the Gale Cengage opposed to paywalls, restrictive licensing and clickwrap agreements on public domain material from public collections, the Gale Cengage supportive of the Public Domain Manifesto and dedicated to liberating of public domain content for everyone to enjoy – was just a hoax, a fantasm. At least this imaginary, illicit doppelgänger Gale gives a fleeting glimpse of a parallel world in which one of the biggest gatekeepers turned into one of the biggest liberators overnight. One can only hope that Gale Cengage and their staff might – in the midst of their legal wrangling – be inspired by this uncanny vision of the good public domain stewards that they could one day become. If only for a moment.

The Myth of European Term of Protection Harmonisation

Christina Angelopoulos - November 21, 2012 in Featured, Open GLAM, Public Domain, Public Domain Works, WG Public Domain

This blog post is based on Christina’s paper, “The Myth of European Term Harmonisation – 27 Public Domains for 27 Member States”. This is a shortened version of the post – the full version is available on the OpenGLAM blog.

Copyright is supposed to be a temporary right: once it has expired, works automatically fall into the public domain for free public access and enjoyment. The importance of this arrangement is especially essential today, in view of the opportunities that internet technologies offer for the online distribution and reuse of out-of-copyright works: electronic repositories of culture such as Europeana, Project Gutenberg or Google Books are currently attempting to digitise and make available online out-of-copyright works, while modern participatory culture means that even individual users can more easily share old works or incorporate them into their own creative output.

Public domain calculators are technical tools to help determine when a work falls into the public domain. The idea is to provide a measure of legal certainty to cultural heritage institutions, as well as the average user, that they are not inadvertently infringing creators’ copyright, allowing them to confidently work with material for which copyright has expired and thus helping to sustain a vibrant, up-to-date and functional public domain.

As has been mentioned before on this blog, as part of the EuropeanaConnect project, Kennisland and the Institute for Information Law (IViR) of the University of Amsterdam set about creating one such calculator, concentrating on the term of protection rules in Europe. With the final tool now ready and available online, below we shall lay out some of the main conclusions drawn during their building process on the intricacies and limitations of European term of protection rules.

Term Disharmonisation and its Causes

When does a work enter the public domain? In EU Member States, the answer to this question should at least be “at the same time” – the Term Directive, one of the first European copyright directives adopted, was intended to leave no room for national deviations from the harmonised European norm.

Nevertheless, careful examination of the Directive’s rules reveals that it has not entirely succeeded in this objective. The way in which the rules laid down by the Directive have been incorporated into national law has differed from Member State to Member State, leading to divergences of up to fifty years for particular works! As a result, the composition of the public domain differs from country to country, as works fall out of copyright on different dates in different EU Member States: the European public domain contracts and expands along the pattern set by national legislative quirks.

The construction of the Public Domain Calculators helped identify the following main sources of legislative variability in this area:

1. Inconsistent Terms = Inconsistent Term

Inconsistency in substantive legal terms is rife, leading inevitably to inconsistency in term calculations. A work may qualify as a work of joint authorship in one jurisdiction, a collective work in another and as a collection of two or more separate works in a third, producing totally different periods of protection. The European Commission has addressed this problem with the recent amendment of the Term Directive in September 2011 for co-authored musical works, but has left the problem in other areas looming.

2. Exceptions to Harmonisation

The next problem is the array of explicit exceptions within the Term Directive. These occur in three areas: transitional provisions preserving longer terms of protection already running in a Member State (of which there are plenty); moral rights, an area generally left untouched by European legislation; and related rights over subject matter originating from outside the EU.

3. Related Rights

The Term Directive limits itself to the related rights of performers, producers of phonograms, broadcasting organisations and producers of first fixations of films. But Member States are allowed to introduce or maintain other related rights whose term will be determined exclusively by national law.

A variety of such rights can be found across the EU, from non-original photographs (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden) to the typographical arrangement of a published edition (Greece, Ireland, Spain, UK), producing a maze of different rights each with its own term of protection.

4. Incorrect Implementation

Finally, divergences between Member State rules might simply result from the incorrect implementation of the Term Directive. Although this is obviously a risk run with any harmonising attempt, the complicated calculations, hierarchy of rules and transitional provisions of the Term Directive do not lend themselves to smooth transposition.

Conclusion

The calculation of the term of protection ought to be a straightforward exercise that any copyright layperson (or at least those with enough copyright knowledge to be able to properly identify the applicable rights) should be able to confidently undertake. Yet this is far from the case.

This effect was illustrated in the Public Domain Calculators by the need for separate electronic tools, giving on occasion very different results, for each of the 30 jurisdictions covered, including the 27, ostensibly harmonised, EU Member States. This effectively illustrates the way in which the incomplete harmonisation of the term of protection increases the complexity of the calculation process in Europe x27! The Calculators are as a result accompanied by a broad disclaimer, explaining that they cannot replace the case-by-case assessment by a legal expert, while it is also for the above reasons that the very concept of automated calculation is warily approached by copyright experts.

But the problem lies not with the concept of electronic term of protection calculation in itself, but with outdated, badly harmonised and obscure rules that fail to live up to the requirements of the internet era, thus hampering end-users and cultural heritage organisations from taking full avail of the new opportunities now technically available. Certainly, the full harmonisation of European rules on the term of protection would not do away with the difficulties created by the current, particularly convoluted, calculation process – but it would go a very long way towards simplifying the requirements for rights clearance across the EU by replacing 27 sets of complicated rules with only one.

Readers are invited to give feedback on the Public Domain Calculator on the pd-discuss list.

All Things Come To Those Who Wait

Jonathan Gray - May 28, 2012 in Public Domain, Public Domain Review, WG Public Domain

‘All Things Come To Those Who Wait’ is an older version of the more common proverb ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait’.

When the poor fellow waiting in the picture above was published, copyright in printed matter in the UK expired at the same time the author did. By 1842 copyright outlived the author by 7 years. By 1911 it became 50 years post mortem. Now copyright lasts for 70 years after the author’s demise. Admittedly rather a long wait.

At least our very patient friend above has time on his side. And at least he can console himself with the fact that – if he can wait long enough – everything will enter the public domain eventually 1.

If, like us, you probably won’t be able to wait that long, you can catch a glimpse of a bright, free, copyright-unencumbered world at The Public Domain Review. If you like what you see then you can sign up for free articles and collections to your inbox, and follow it on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest.

If you can think of somewhere nice to put it, the graphic is on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike license.


  1. With the strange and wonderful exception of Peter Pan, that incorrigible rascal who has fallen out of copyright, but nevertheless keeps compelling everyoneexcept the Disney Corporationto give to Great Ormond Street Hospital for children

Open Book Publishers releases “The Digital Public Domain”

Theodora Middleton - April 24, 2012 in COMMUNIA, External, Open Access, Public Domain, WG Humanities, WG Public Domain

openbookpublishers Open Book Publishers is the first UK academic publisher to have made all its books freely available online, publishing peer-reviewed research in subjects across the Humanities and Social Sciences. They are “committed to the idea that high quality scholarship should be available to readers everywhere regardless of their income or access to university libraries”.

CommuniaCover This week sees their most recent release hit the virtual shelves, The Digital Public Domain: Foundations for an Open Culture, edited by Melanie Dulong de Rosnay, co-founder and chair of Communia, and Juan Carlos De Martin. From the Press Release:

This book brings together essays by academics, librarians, entrepreneurs, activists and policy makers, who were all part of the EU-funded Communia project. Together the authors argue that the Public Domain — that is, the informational works owned by all of us, be that literature, music, the output of scientific research, educational material or public sector information — is fundamental to a healthy society.

The essays range from more theoretical papers on the history of copyright and the Public Domain, to practical examples and case studies of recent projects that have engaged with the principles of Open Access and Creative Commons licensing. The book is essential reading for anyone interested in the current debate about copyright and the Internet. It opens up discussion and offers practical solutions to the difficult question of the regulation of culture at the digital age.

Open Book Publishers argue that “One of the fundamental aims of academia is to spark thought and debate in both the academic and wider community. Open Access helps spread educational materials to everyone, globally, not just to those who can afford it. A large proportion of scholarly research is publicly funded, so it seems only reasonable that its results be made available as widely as possible.”

The free PDF edition of this title was made possible by generous funding received from the European Union (eContentplus framework project ECP-2006-PSI-610001). Get your copy here, and have a browse of their other titles at www.openbookpublishers.com.

Open Plaques: Community Powered Heritage

Deirdre Molloy - March 9, 2012 in External, Featured Project, Open GLAM, Public Domain, WG Cultural Heritage, WG Public Domain

This is a shortened version of a post from the OpenGLAM blog, where you can keep up-to-date with goings-on around open data in heritage and arts.

Historical plaques by their very nature are objects in the public domain, so creating a platform to collect them with the public – and for the collected data to be available for the broadest possible public use – seemed an obvious starting point. That’s why Open Plaques data has been open data from birth.

Those little historical markers dotted around buildings and other places we see everyday are physical portholes through time, connecting past and present. The caveat being, our experience of them is largely fleeting, easily forgotten. Even in the UK a myriad of bodies large and small put up plaques, and the digital data provided is mixed, often non-existent. But what if each encapsulated story was instantly accessible, its backstory and context linked? How would our experience of places change if we could knit plaques in the material world together with the fabric of the web?

‘We’ is the operative word with Open Plaques, a project born out of two basic thoughts: how could you feasibly tackle collecting all these plaques together and what could be done with the tapestry of stories then woven if the data was open?

sowerby What the journey so far has made clear to us is this: open data is great, but just being open isn’t enough. You need to be either (a) vitally useful enough to attract resources to pour into your service, or (b) interesting enough to attract sufficient people who care about what you’re doing and enjoy helping. We fall into the latter category; a plaque map doesn’t save lives or make the trains run on time after all. But without one or both of these drivers it’s just inert data, unlikely to grow and going nowhere. And even if you have (a) or (b), it’s still (c) a lot of hard work. But being a Type-B open data project, we’re also highly motivated

Our community of contributors, collaborators and supporters is an enthusiastic mish mash of people who like collecting plaques, playing with cultural data, finding out about history, supporting heritage and tourism, curating archives, exploring their area and further afield, and learning by having fun whilst discovering and mapping these noteworthy objects that dot the landscape. Having said that, the data we’re gathering is far from trivial and tells us huge amounts about our surroundings and past and present-day world. It’s a goldmine of location-based history.

Apps built from our data so far include two iPhone apps from Radical Robot and London Smartphone and another forthcoming from PlaceWhisper, a Kindle ebook ‘London’s Blue Plaques In a Nutshell’, and an optical character recognition (OCR) challenge. Our data has also been used at History HackDay 2011, and loaded into a TomTom satnav. A further new app is in the pipeline. Read more about the apps here.

These are a mixture of free and paid for services but as the core database grows, especially beyond the UK, so does the potential for other interesting re-uses. Recently Ireland has seen an increase in listings – with two sizeable datasets contributed by Limerick Civic Trust and Waterford City Council, and purely community-driven growth in Dublin. Other big clusters already exist in our New York and Toronto listings. These are historic cities that could benefit from savvy re-use of the data, whether by tourism bodies, cultural organisations or local entrepreneurs. We are here to facilitate them.

At the end of February, the histonauts2 pervasive gaming event demonstrated the scope for re-using and contributing data creatively. Held as part of Manchester Histories Festival, the organisers simply referred to our online list of unphotographed Manchester plaques, and set daily missions for people taking part in their digital treasure hunt around the city to find and photograph the plaques. They posted the resulting pictures on Flickr with CC licenses, and added the relevant machine tags. The upshot being the players augmented our data whilst tracking history in the real world, and 20% of the unphotographed plaques locally got an image!

The data is there if you want to look at it, published under ‘Public Domain Dedication and License 1.0′. Or you can help us build it – add new plaque listings and photos if you find any, or contact us about contributing to the web development. We’re a museum of the street, and we’d love to get more organisations and individuals contributing to the collection.

So feel free to unlock your inner plaquetivist!

The Year in (Public Domain) Review

Theodora Middleton - February 15, 2012 in OKF Projects, Our Work, Public Domain, Public Domain Works, WG Public Domain

Last month, the glorious Public Domain Review celebrated its first birthday.

The Public Domain Review aspires to become a bounteous gateway into the whopping plenitude that is the public domain, helping our readers to explore this rich terrain by surfacing unusual and obscure works, and offering fresh reflections and unfamiliar angles on material which is more well-known.

It’s been a fantastic year for our online compendium of public domain treasures: here’s a little round-up of some of the highlights – take what you like, and find more on the website!

Articles

Julian Barnes told the story of when a young Guy de Maupassant was invited to lunch at the holiday cottage of Algernon Swinburne. A flayed human hand, pornography, the serving of monkey meat, and inordinate amounts of alcohol, all made for a truly strange Anglo-French encounter.

Utriusque Cosmi (1617-1621), the masterwork of physician and polymath Robert Fludd, was explored by Urszula Szulakowska, who looked at the philosophical and theological ideas behind the extraordinary images found in the second part of the work, which you can access through the post.

Julie Gardham took a look at the book that was said to have spurred a young Isaac Newton onto the scientific path, The Mysteries of Nature and Art by John Bate. In this picture you can see “Another manner of forcing water, whereby water from any spring may be forced unto the top of a hill”

And in Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Nicholas Humphrey explored the strange world of medieval animal trials, with murderous pigs sent to the gallows, sparrows prosecuted for chattering in Church, a gang of thieving rats let off on a wholly technical acquittal.

Collections

We’re also constantly expanding our collections of film, image, text and audio. Check out the collection of maps by Piri Reis, a sixteenth century Ottoman Admiral famous for his detailed and accurate maps and charts of the Mediterranean.

Alexandria

Or the these pages from Giambattista della Porta’s 1586 book on physiognomy De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine via Wikimedia:

Become a Public Domain Review Patron

The first year of the Public Domain Review was made possible by seed funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation. We are now, however, relying solely on support from our readers to keep the project going, so please, if you enjoy the site and wish to see it continue and grow do consider becoming a patron! Your generosity will help keep us afloat while we scour the web in search of the most interesting and unusual public domain artefacts that we can find, and the most erudite and entertaining voices to write about them. It will also ensure the continuation of our work behind the scenes with institutions (universities, libraries, museums, etc.) trying to ensure that works in the public domain remain in the public domain when they go online.

Ideas for OpenPhilosophy.org

Jonathan Gray - December 20, 2011 in Bibliographic, Free Culture, Ideas and musings, Open Content, Open Data, Public Domain, WG Cultural Heritage, WG Humanities, WG Public Domain, Working Groups

The following post is from Jonathan Gray, Community Coordinator at the Open Knowledge Foundation. It is cross-posted from jonathangray.org.

For several years I’ve been meaning to start OpenPhilosophy.org, which would be a collection of open resources related to philosophy for use in teaching and research. There would be a focus on the history of philosophy, particularly on primary texts that have entered the public domain, and on structured data about philosophical texts.

The project could include:

  • A collection of public domain philosophical texts, in their original languages. This would include so called ‘minor’ figures as well as well known thinkers. The project would bring together texts from multiple online sources – from projects like Europeana, the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg or Wikimedia Commons, to smaller online collections from libraries, archives, academic departments or individual scholars. Every edition would be rights cleared to check that it could be freely redistributed, and would be made available either under an open license, with a rights waiver or a public domain dedication.
  • Translations of public domain philosophical texts, including historical translations which have entered the public domain, and more recent translations which have been released under an open license.
  • Ability to lay out original texts and translations side by side – including the ability to create new translations, and to line up corresponding sections of the text.
  • Ability to annotate texts, including private annotations, annotations shared with specific users or groups of users, and public annotations. This could be done using the Annotator tool.
  • Ability to add and edit texts, e.g. by uploading or by importing via a URL for a text file (such as a URL from Project Gutenberg). Also ability to edit texts and track changes.
  • Ability to be notified of new texts that might be of interest to you – e.g. by subscribing to certain philosophers.
  • Stable URLs to cite texts and or sections of texts – including guidance on how to do this (e.g. automatically generating citation text to copy and paste in a variety of common formats).

The project could also include a basic interface for exploring and editing structured data on philosophers and philosophical works:

  • Structured bibliographic data on public domain philosophical works – including title, year, publisher, publisher location, and so on. Ability to make lists of different works for different purposes, and to export bibliographic data in a variety of formats (building on existing work in this area – such as Bibliographica and related projects).
  • Structured data on secondary texts, such as articles, monographs, etc. This would enable users to browse secondary works about a given text. One could conceivably show which works discuss or allude to a given section of a primary text.
  • Structured data on the biographies of philosophers – including birth and death dates and other notable biographical and historical events. This could be combined with bibliographic data to give a basic sense of historical context to the texts.

Other things might include:

  • User profiles – to enable people to display their affiliation and interests, and to be able to get in touch with other users who are interested in similar topics.
  • Audio version of philosophical texts – such as from Librivox.
  • Links to open access journal articles.
  • Images and other media related to philosophy.
  • Links to Wikipedia articles and other introductory material.
  • Educational resources and other material that could be useful in a teaching/learning context – e.g. lecture notes, slide decks or recordings of lectures.

While there are lots of (more or less ambitious!) ideas above, the key thing would be to develop the project in conjunction with end users in philosophy departments, including undergraduate students and researchers. Having something simple that could be easily used and adopted by people who are teaching, studying or researching philosophy or other humanities disciplines would be more important that something cutting edge and experimental but less usable. Hence it would be really important to have a good, intuitive user interface and lots of ongoing feedback from users.

What do you think? Interested in helping out? Know of existing work that we could build on (e.g. bits of code or collections of texts)? Please do leave a comment below, join discussion on the open-humanities mailing list or send me an email!

Public Domain Day: January 1st 2012

Theodora Middleton - December 13, 2011 in COMMUNIA, Events, External, Public Domain, Public Domain Works, WG Public Domain

The following guest post is by Juan Carlos de Martin, from the the Politecnico of Torino, Italy, one of the organisers of the annual Public Domain Day of which the OKF is a proud supporter.

Every January a growing number of people throughout the world gather to celebrate the new year. But not for the usual reasons. They meet because every January 1st the works of authors who died decades before – typically, seventy years before – enter the public domain, that is, their copyright protection expires.

Why a celebration for such an apparently technical reason? Because as the new year starts, the works of those selected authors have finally reached the state to which all culture is headed since the earliest times. I am talking of the state that automatically allows any human being to sing, play, translate, summarize, adapt what other human beings have thought before them. Wish to produce a big print edition of your favorite poetry? Now you can. Fancy translating into Sicilian dialect a play you love? Now you can. Possessed by the desire to illustrate, manga style, the ideas of your preferred political scientist? Now you can. Longing to publish a more correct version of a score riddled with typos that the publisher never cared to correct? Now you can.

In principle, all the above activities are perfectly possible even before the expiration of copyright. On condition, however, that one asks for permission the copyright owner (assuming that they can be located: let’s ignore here the huge problem of the so-called “orphan works”) and pays whatever is requested. Noting that very often the copyright owner is not the author (or his/her descendants), but a for-profit publishing house.

Consequently, many activities do not take place because either the copyright owner does not like the idea (no manga, for instance), or because the wannabe new author cannot afford to pay what is requested by the copyright owner.

Such restrictions, introduced, in their modern form, about three centuries ago to provide – for the common good – incentives to authors, now last an unprecedented seventy years (in Europe and in many other countries) after the death of the authors.

A shockingly long time, which an increasing number of scholars, NGO’s and citizens are asking to reduce. To know more about the current debate on copyright reform and the role of the public domain, see for instance the Public Domain Manifesto and the brand new, Brussels-based COMMUNIA association for the digital public domain, or check out the OKF’s Working Group on the Public Domain.

But as we work towards copyright reform, every January people who care about the public domain get together and welcome the works of a new batch of authors. In recent years, public domain day celebrations have taken place in cities throughout the world, from Zurich to Warsaw, from Torino to Haifa, from Rome to Berlin. The volunteer-staffed website http://publicdomainday.org provides an information hub for such celebrations.

The celebrations typically take place in libraries, universities or cafés. People read – or sometimes perform – the work of the new authors. It is often a moving experience, as great men and women from the time of our grand (and great-grand) fathers come back to life under our affectionate gaze.

During the month of January 2012 people will gather again. Celebrations have already been announced in, among other places, Warsaw, Zurich, Torino and Rome. We hope that others will follow the example. Welcoming the works of some of our great writers, musicians, painters, poets, journalists, scholars is a most gratifying way to start the new year and also a great way to enhance the knowledge of our common cultural roots.

If you’re interested in organising an event in your area, you can join the pd-discuss list.

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