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 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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Theodora is press officer at the Open Knowledge Foundation, based in London. Get in touch via