UMass Libraries celebrates Public Domain Day

Newly released works from 1923 were shown

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(Collegian file photo)

By James Woglom, Collegian Correspondent

On Thursday, the University of Massachusetts Libraries hosted a reception for Public Domain Day in the Science and Engineering Library, serving as a celebration of public usage rights, espoused through the inauguration of a new exhibit honoring over a dozen public domain books, paintings and scientific publications.

All of the works featured were produced in 1923, and therefore, fell into the public domain on Jan. 1, 2019 in the United States. Public Domain Day, celebrated on Jan. 1, marks this occasion and was celebrated by UMass and other educational institutions on Jan. 31.

The exhibit and introduction event were primarily organized by UMass librarian Paulina Borrego, who contributes to the library’s Patent and Trademark Research Center.

“I asked fellow librarians to contribute: people who were familiar with art,…movies, books and scientific articles,” Borrego said. “I really wanted to educate people about open access, and different ways in which information gets into public hands.”

Borrego and Laura Quilter, UMass copyright and information policy librarian, handed out flyers which described the event and its significance, while offering passing students and faculty refreshments of crackers, fruit and coffee from a table alongside the curated materials.

Described as an “amazing New Year’s present” of previously inaccessible works now available to researchers and students, the exhibit contains items by Willa Cather, Agatha Christie, Cecil B. DeMille, Sigmund Freud, Robert Frost, Kahlil Gibran, Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Picasso, Virginia Woolf and others.

“My favorite in the collection is a sculpture called ‘Object To Be Destroyed,’” Borrego said, pointing to a framed photo on the wall of the artwork. “[The original sculpture] was in a museum exhibit, and people actually destroyed it there. Then, with the insurance money, [creator Man Ray] made another one.”

Facing the picture, she moved to point at a card to the side of the picture frame. “I tried to put a little text next to each one, educating people about what it was,” she said.

Public domain works are able to be copied, modified or adapted to other mediums without permission of the original author. The ability to openly copy and adapt to other forms of media is especially useful for librarians and archivists, as it can become difficult to preserve content from nearly a century ago. 

“The first sale doctrine allows you to sell or share a physical copy that you own: that’s what libraries rely on to lend books, for example,” Quilter said. “But it doesn’t address making new copies and, over time, original copies can be destroyed. So if you want to keep information alive…we have to be able to copy it, convert it to new forms; we have to be able to share and preserve it.”

Due to intricacies in copyright law, this marked the first Public Domain Day in the United States since 1998, when works published in 1922 were granted public domain status. The Copyright Act of 1976 adjusted the maximum length of copyright protection from 56 years, 28 years initially with the possibility of a 28-year extension, to the date of the author’s death plus 50 years.

The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extended each of these copyright protections by an additional 20 years.

“The current copyright term is 70 years after the death of the author, or for corporate works, [either] 95 or 120 years, which is entirely unreasonable,” Quilter said. “In fact, even copyright maximalists have basically said that this was a mistake. It’s created an enormous problem for people who use historical works, for biography or documentary, or people who want to data mine it to make scientific discoveries amongst the research which was done in the past.”

Marc Liberatore, a UMass computer science teaching faculty member who specializes in computer crime law and digital forensics, agreed.

“Having things enter the public domain is very important,” he said. “I think until the last 100 years or so, that was the default, things entered the public domain fairly quickly and became a part of general culture in a way that it’s difficult to do now.”

While the 1976 copyright act was at the time considered necessary by Congress to update copyright law for new and evolving forms of media, the 1998 extension was criticized by some as unnecessary pandering to media companies, according to Quilter.

“That act is sometimes called derisively the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’ because Disney fought so hard to get it, as Steamboat Willie, the precursor to Mickey Mouse, was originally published in the [19]20s,” Quilter said. “They’re very interested in protecting every aspect of it.”

Regarding the length of time until media is placed into the public domain, Liberatore said, “At some point, it does seem to push the bounds of ludicrousness.”

He added, “We’re coming up on 100 years for Steamboat Willie. A hundred years is often a magic number: things are often declassified…in government. We acknowledge that in 100 years, so much will have changed. So it seems unreasonable that you can bind the hands of everyone for a particular piece of art for that long. Death of author plus 100 years? We’re not there yet, but we’re close.”

According to Quilter, long copyright protections can make preservation efforts by libraries and other individuals difficult.

“If you look at Amazon availability, or anywhere else with used and public books, anything published prior to 1923 is highly available, and then it plunges,” Quilter said. “All of the creativity of the 20th century is lost.”

Having to wait such a long period of time can also cause logistical problems, according to Liberatore.

For things that aren’t big and famous, like not Steamboat Willie, you sort of lose who the rights holder is [over time],” Liberatore said. “The company went out of business, or the author of the novel died and his estate is in disarray, and we don’t know who got the rights. Then you can’t duplicate it, and you can’t even go to a person to get permission.”

Quilter suggests that copyright law in the United States return to its roots via the country’s first copyright legislation, the Copyright Act of 1790. “The original term of copyright was 14 years, with a renewal period of 14 years,” she said. “My guess is that for the vast majority of works, that would actually be an adequate amount of time to get their commercial value.”

“[Are long copyrights] what us as a society want to permit? It’s what Disney wants. But is it what everyone wants?” Liberatore said. “It’s this attentional problem, and there are tons of problems, and which one is more pressing? Usually not copyright law, which is why these things get passed.”

Quilter believes libraries should be emboldened as activists in order to fulfill their role as preservers of media.

“There’s no question that we’ve lost, honestly, an enormous part of our heritage due to over-broad, over-protected copyright regimes,” she said. “We could’ve been preserving these things, and then if someone sued us for preserving it, I think if that had been taken to court 20 or 30 years ago, we would have won.”

“I think maybe the motto we should adopt is ‘use it or lose it,’” Borrego said. “In use, things get preserved and saved and reused and reimagined. But if no one knows it exists, and you don’t know it’s there, it falls into disarray.”

Regardless of whether any copyright law improvements materialize, there is still much to be excited about as years of public domain works become available, Quilter said.

“We are about to welcome into the public domain modern filmmaking, the jazz era…modern science,” she said. “As the decades roll on, we’re going to bring into the public domain all of the works from the first part of the 20th century, which was an enormous flowering of human creativity and ingenuity and work.”

The exhibit, titled “Unlocking the Past,” is available for public viewing in the lobby of the SEL on the second floor of the Lederle Graduate Research Center low-rise. It will be on display through May 24.James Woglom can be reached at [email protected]