The beginning of each year heralds a little known but fascinating event: a new set of works that have been covered by copyright for many years enter the public domain. This means that on January 1, 2011 the works of authors who died in 1940 – including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanial West, Emma Goldman and Leon Trotsky – will become free of copyright protection and will now be owned by everyone. They can be shared online or in courses without restriction or they can be used as a base to create a whole new work. To learn more about Public Domain Day, as it is known, go to this website: http://publicdomainday.org/2011.
The most basic purpose of copyright is to encourage authors to create new works by allowing them certain rights so that they may exclusively benefit from their efforts. (The same applies to patents and trademark coverage.) Copyright in this country started in 1790 and at first it lasted for a term of 28 years. With the Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998, authors' rights now last for 70 years after their deaths. This change was urged in part due to the impending loss of copyright to some famous corporate icons, including Mickey Mouse and Pooh.
Copyright is vested in all expression at the point of its being put into a fixed medium, e.g. on paper, in a sound file, on a canvas or in a digital document. Facts and titles cannot be copyrighted, only an individual's version of the idea. This allows many people to write a book about the same topic or paint the same scene. Each one of us is a copyright owner, as are corporations and governments, except for the federal government, which puts most of its work into the public domain from the beginning. (Which is a nice perk for us.) Sometimes a condition of publication is to cede your copyright interest in an article to the journal that will review and publish it. This locking up and selling of copyrighted material has led to the creation of the Creative Commons license and other efforts to keep information unrestricted.
Clearly, copyright is a very complex issue. One thing that we know for sure is it does, in fact, end. So for now, celebrate January 1st with something that is newly in the public domain. As you read it, smile and think, 'Hey, I own this!'
For those who want a handy reference guide to copyright ownership, look here: http://www.copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm#Footnote_1
For general information of copyright, try Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright#Public_domain. For a discussion of how copyright has grown, check out the Wikipedia entry on the Copyright Term Extension Act http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_Term_Extension_Act.