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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Please, protect the public domain!

My New Year’s Eve was pretty good. As I am not much of a party-goer I did not plan on doing anything special. My two friends Cassie and Carly had extended a casual invitation to perhaps do something. Eventually they decided to watch the hockey game, and having no interest in hockey, I did not go over to their house. But I asked them to “alert me in the event of an impromptu snowball fight”. Sure enough, around quarter after eleven, I received a pushy text message explaining that they were coming over to my house! This was followed by one that advised me to have my coat on—at that point, I knew the game was afoot, and I prepared to ambush their ambush. A snowball fight ensued, followed by the more constructive act of creating a snowman. Later we went inside and played a card game, Dominion, that their other friend had brought. It was intense and interesting, and it was a good evening.

New Year’s Day is always better than New Year’s Eve. Always. Because New Year’s Day is Public Domain Day. Every year, children and adults alike gather round to give thanks and feast, to celebrate the creations of authors who died 51 (or 71, if you live in Europe or the US) calendar years ago. We drink to the remembrance of these luminaries, whose legacies leave us with a lasting, inviolable cultural heritage.

Or at least we should.

Here is a short list of authors whose published works are now in the public domain in Canada. This includes Ernest Hemingway, and for those of you who like physics, Erwin Schrödinger. In Canada, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 50 calendar years after their death (hence New Year’s Day as Public Domain Day, when the work ticks over into the public domain). This is the “standard” term of copyright agreed upon internationally, but certain jurisdictions have chosen to extend that copyright term to the life of the author plus 70 calendar years (or “life+70”). Europe and the United States are among these countries. They are welcoming Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Frederick Banting, among others, into the public domain.

The public domain is amazing and vital to our society and our cultural heritage. Meera Nair has a succinct explanation of why this is over at her blog, Fair Duty, including the perspective of Project Gutenberg Canada founder Mark Akrigg. (That’s right, we have a Project Gutenberg Canada, because there are some works in the public domain in Canada that aren’t available in places like the United States.) Essentially, what the argument reduces to is one of cultural versus economic incentives. Copyright began as a limited monopoly on intellectual property to encourage creators to keep on creating by ensuring they would receive compensation for what the government deemed an appropriate amount of time. This appropriate amount—the copyright term—has continually been revised and extended over the past century. That’s not good.

Imagine if Shakespeare were not in the public domain today, but instead you had to pay someone’s estate for the right to adapt one of his plays? It might sound like an extreme example, owing to the Bard’s death 400 years ago, but hopefully this puts the public domain into perspective: it is a cultural treasury that keeps culture alive. It provides creators and consumers alike with a repository of material of cultural worth, and it offers a starting point for new, valuable works. Copyright is a good thing. The public domain is a good thing too.

The public domain in Canada is under attack. Go to the Project Gutenberg Canada website right now, if you did not click the link above already. At the time of this post they have the following statement on their homepage, in massive print:

It seems that Europe wants copyrights in Canada to last longer, and they want to take away 20 YEARS of OUR (not their) public domain! They call that "free trade"? We call it European colonialism! In Canada, we don't let foreign governments write our laws!

Hyperbole? Perhaps a little bit, but the point stands: firstly, by signing this agreement our government unilaterally makes a significant commitment to change Canada’s intellectual property laws; secondly, the implications for those changes are, in my opinion, undesirable. The statement links to a blog post by Michael Geist, in which Geist elaborates on the implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement for copyright. This agreement would require its signatories to extend their copyright terms to life+70. Geist has a follow-up post that lists some notable Canadian authors whose works would be delayed from entering the public domain because of this extension. What I found most chilling, however, is this statement:

The extension in the term of copyright would mean no new works would enter the public domain in those countries until at least 2033 (assuming an agreement takes effect in 2013).

For twenty years, not one single work by any dead person would enter the public domain in Canada. That’s an entire generation of children growing up without being able to celebrate Public Domain Day.

If the Canadian government signs the TPP as it stands and extends the term of copyright to life+70 years, they will be sending an unequivocal signal that they do not think the public domain is of value. Worse, they will be dooming the Canadian public domain to stagnation, and endangering the cultural heritage of all Canadians. An entire generation of Canadians will grow up thinking that this gross distortion and abuse of copyright is legitimate.

But there is a thin, tiny sliver of hope. It’s not much. It’s not like copyright consultations ever got us anywhere in the past. But we have to act on it. You can write the department responsible for this and voice your opinion. Please do it. You have until February 14, 2012—that’s an entire month to compose one short and sweet email to [email protected]. See Professor Geist’s post for the snail-mail equivalents if you want them.

The public domain is a treasure. Don’t let the government shut it away in the closet for twenty years for the sake of international trade.