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January 21, 2003

Grow Public Domain, Grow

I hope for most of you this is old news, but: Fresh from the Supreme Court's decision against his side in Eldred v. Ashcroft, Lawrence Lessig has introduced a new strategy for accomplishing the vital task of moving more creative works into the public domain. The Eric Eldred Act FAQ explains everything very clearly:

Fifty years after a copyrighted work was published, a copyright owner would have to pay a tiny tax. That tax could be as low as $1. If the copyright owner does not pay that tax for three years in a row, then the copyright would be forfeited to the public domain. If the tax is paid, then the form would require the listing of a copyright agent--a person charged with receiving requests about that copyright. The Copyright Office would then make the listing of taxes paid, and copyright agents, available free of charge on their website.

This is necessary because:

We estimate that of all the work copyrighted between 1923 and 1942 (the first twenty years affected by the Sonny Bono Act), only 2% has any continuing commercial value. If a work has no commercial value, then there would be little reason for the copyright owner to pay the tax. That work would therefore quickly pass into the public domain. If the proposal were adopted as outlined, then within three years, over 90% of the copyrighted between 1923 and 1952 would be in the public domain. This would be massive increase of material into the public domain, through a mechanism that would create a cheap and useable record of the material that remains under copyright.

As a teacher, my mind boggles at how great it would be if 98% of work copyrighted between 1923 and 1942 were in the public domain. It would also be good for the economy. Here's how: Right now, teachers can't afford the time or money it would take to track down permissions to use many copyrighted works, but many of those works are out of print so they can't ask their students to buy them either. The solution for many teachers is to simply steal these works instead by photocopying them and giving them to their students. If these works were in the public domain, they could be made available online for free, or someone like the Dover Press could create Dover Thrift Editions (or something similar) of them, and then teachers could have their students buy them, meaning the Eldred Act would create profit where there now is none. More important, it could make accessible thousands of texts (music, poetry, fiction, etc.) that are now out of print.

The Eldred Act is a great idea. Check the FAQ for information about how you can help get it passed.

Posted January 21, 2003 08:59 AM | general politics

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