With the Supreme Court hearing
the rather important
Golan case this week, concerning the ability of the federal government to take works out of the public domain and put them under copyright, there is actually some mainstream press discussion about the public domain. The NY Times is running a great op-ed piece by Peter Decherney, a film studies professor, talking first about how devastating it's been for filmmakers like him to have works they previous relied on in the public domain
suddenly shift to being covered by copyright.
In my own field — film — the effects of the 1994 law have been palpable. Distributors of classic foreign films have seen their catalogs diminished. Students can no longer get copies of many films. Archivists have postponed the preservation of important films. And of course filmmakers have lost access to works of literature that they might have adapted and music that might have enhanced soundtracks.
But the key point is made towards the end of the opinion piece, in which he notes the blatant hypocrisy on the part of the MPAA, who filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that we need to pull works out of the public domain to show the world that the US is "a proponent of strong copyright protection throughout the world."
But, as Decherney points out, all of that is hogwash especially since the very same movie industry that's complaining about this has always relied on the public domain as a source for new works:
But history tells a different story. Filmmakers have consistently used public domain works to anchor artistic and technological innovation. In the 1930s, when Walt Disney decided to make one of the first feature-length animated films, he turned to the Brothers Grimm’s version of the tale of Snow White. When asked why he chose that story, Disney explained that “it was well known.” He understood that “Snow White” was a trusted property, and because he knew that at least the story and characters would be familiar to audiences, he could take an artistic risk with the form.
Disney is only the most famous example of a filmmaker who relied on the public domain to expand the art of film. Starting with Thomas Edison in 1910, filmmakers have adapted Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in movies that have accompanied the transition to feature films, the establishment of the studios, the switch to sound, the introduction of color, the advent of television and the adoption of widescreen aspect ratios.
And yet, now, works that formerly were in the public domain -- and which some people made a business of selling -- have been removed from the public domain and placed back under copyright law that they don't need. This should be seen as a huge problem with the system and