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Amber Paulen

Copyright and the Public Domain

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about copyright and the public domain. What do these words mean and what is their value? At the end of his life, Leo Tolstoy wanted to commit all his novels to the public domain. His reasons were religious, and selfish. His wife Sophia, who had bore him 13 children and rewritten War and Peace while breast feeding, did not agree. She wanted the work copyrighted, she wanted the money—and who can blame her with so many mouths to feed?

Leo Tolstoy is an extreme case.

What usually happens is that 70 years (in the EU) after the death of the artist, the work enters the public domain unless copyright is renewed. The public domain is a valuable intellectual pool which anyone can dip into and take from, for whatever reason. The public domain is valuable for the possibility of dissemination: the wider information is spread, the greater the collective knowledge.

I am a huge fan of the public domain but would never put my writing into it until after I’m dead, then the need to make a living won’t matter unless I have lots of little children. All this seems straight forward to me, uncomplicated. But to get to public domain, one must first pass through copyright.

Everything about copyright is written in a jumble of incomprehension that is law. Take your average unassuming photograph from the mid to late 1800s. Who owns the copyright? There is no name on the photo and no date, which must be deduced. Can’t I then logically conclude that the photograph has fallen into the public domain? But who owns the copyright? The person who posted the photo online? No, they just scanned a photo from a book and declined to post its valuable information.

There is so much work on the Internet posted by people who have created, and some who have simply taken. There are standards but these are voluntary and would be impossible to enforce. I wish that those who post online, photographs or anything that has not been personally created, to be aware of and respect its history by also making such information known.


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