Public Domain Day outside the USA: what Canada and the rest of the world get today

Quartz Quartz

In the USA, laws passed in 1976 and 1998 ensure that virtually nothing ever enters the public domain, but it's a different story in the rest of the world -- for now, at least.

In Canada, copyright endures for 50 years after the author's death, so this year, Canada is getting a bumper-crop of public domain works, including the works of TS Eliot, Winston Churchill, Nat King Cole, Malcolm X, Edward R Murrow, Spike Jones, Sonny Boy Williamson, Shirley Jackson, Albert Schweitzer, Fred Quimby and Somerset Maugham.

But Canada is on the verge of signing the Trans Pacific Partnership, which forces all 12 countries to sink to the level of the American program. If Canada signs on, this'll be the last year that Canada gets any new public domain works, until 2036.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is getting its own New Year's present for the public domain, while the Americans continue to wall themselves off from the freedom to make new works by interpreting old ones, to do deep scholarly research, to adapt works to assistive formats for disabled people, and to produce cheaper editions that can find their way into the hands of the record numbers of Americans living in poverty.

There has been extensive research (pdf) showing that copyright extensions diminish the value of the public domain in ways that are not offset by the additional compensation accrued to copyright holders. But the greatest damage is not necessarily economic; lesser-known and orphaned works are vulnerable to being lost entirely. Jennifer Jenkins, director of the CSPD, tells Quartz: “Films are literally rotting in their cans. They are turning into dust.”

Despite these criticisms, the US has repeatedly pursued efforts to “harmonize” the rest of the world around 70 year copyright terms.

The latest such effort is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, if ratified, would require its 12 signatories to adopt a minimum copyright term of 70 years after death. If that happens, works by André Breton and Evelyn Waugh would not enter the public domain in Canada next year, as they are currently expected. It will ensure a smaller, sadder Public Domain Day for them—but at least Americans would have their northern neighbors to commiserate with.

Wikilivres:1965 deaths, therefore now in the Public Domain

It’s Public Domain Day and once again Americans get almost nothing [Christopher Groskopf/Quartz]

(Image: Quartz)

Notable Replies

  1. Is it preferable that the copies of Mein Kampf that are widely available in the UK return a dividend to Hitler's publishers/heirs?

  2. Anselm says:

    As far as Mein Kampf is concerned, Hitler's heir is the German federal state of Bavaria. For the last 70 years, officials there have declined to permit the printing of new copies of the book, so any copies that are around and are not left over from before 1945 are presumably “pirated”.

    Here in Germany, Mein Kampf has also entered the public domain today, and this will be celebrated by the publication of a critically-annotated version later this month. The Bavarian officials are less than enthusiastic (even though the state partly underwrote the project when it was new; they later withdrew from it again), and there is apparently consensus between the ministers of justice in the various German states that they will try to sue people who publish uncommented versions of the book because they claim it incites people to ethnic hatred (Volksverhetzung). Since the legal bar for this is actually quite high and specific, whether that will actually yield the desired result in court is anybody's guess.

    In actual fact the book is very badly written and not really enjoyable reading at all, even (very probably) for wannabe neo-Nazis, so the fuss that is being made about it probably does nothing except make the thing more interesting when it would otherwise be very obscure indeed.

  3. We read Mein Kampf in a high school world history class as a project. It was definitely poorly written, but my teacher at the time wanted to emphasize that, while the heads of the European powers were negotiating with Hitler, it was quite obvious that none of them had read it.

    Chamberlain was waiving a treaty signed by a man who stated his plan clearly to overrun Europe, and that he would use deceit to further those goals. It was almost like every Batman show, where the villain would painstakingly explain his evil plan, only that Hitler gave Europe 10 years notice.

    Knowing thy enemy is critical. If anyone had read Mein Kampf they could have never come to the conclusion that Hitler could be appeased.

  4. Anselm says:

    The English rights to Mein Kampf were actually licensed to Houghton Mifflin (which as Cory notes still publishes the book), which sublicensed the rights to publish a full translation to another publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock, which was bought by yet another publisher (Harcourt, Brace), which was bought (in 2007) by – tadaa!! – Houghton Mifflin.

    Even in Germany the book isn't actually proscribed – if you have a copy you are free to use it or sell it, or to buy one if you can find it offered anywhere –, it's just that there have been no (official, complete) new copies printed since 1945. Even so there are still loads of pre-1945 copies around since during the Nazi regime, newly-married couples would be given a complimentary copy of Mein Kampf by the state, and it used to be illegal to sell or buy the book on the second-hand market, in order to safeguard Hitler's profit stream. Hence many people come across them when they clear out their grandparents' attics. And while of course nowadays the text is easy to find on the Internet, Mein Kampf is still not something that skinheads tend to carry around in the pockets of their bomber jackets.

    Incidentally, it is not possible to outlaw Mein Kampf on the grounds that it argues for the abolition of civil liberties and the democratic order as outlined in the German federal constitution (the Freiheitliche demokratische Grundordnung). This is because it predates the German constitution by some 20 years and therefore cannot be considered an attack on it.

  5. Besides the issue of copyright expiration, trying to do research on current conversations in my field is frequently frustrated by paywall after paywall to get to the papers I want. Sometimes I pay up to $30 for a paper, just going off of citations and the abtract, and it could turn out to be not so useful. Most papers have dozens of sources, many of them behind paywalls of some kind...the costs can add up quickly.

    This situation undoubtedly limits the quantity, quality, and depth of the conversations being had, and consequently the general realm of knowledge. It also encourages specialists to become even more siloed. The damage that this is doing to our collective body of knowledge--now and down the road--is immeasurable.

    Thankfully, more and more outlets are free and available on the internet.

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