As the year ticks over we traditionally celebrate the works that will this year become “a common treasure, available for anyone to freely use for any purpose” as their copyright expires and they enter the public domain. One January is the standard expiration date used around the world, so in most countries new bundles of works will, even as we speak, be becoming free for anyone to reimagine, reuse and remix in any way they wish.
Unfortunately, marking the day in Australia is largely symbolic. In 2006, as part of our US Free Trade Agreement commitments, we extended the copyright term for all works by 20 years, meaning that there will be no new public domain works in Australia until 2026. So unlike our friends in Canada and New Zealand, we can’t do a cheeky reimagining of HV Evatt’s 1949 entry to Wisden’s Cricket Almanac, reproduce TS Eliot’s The Wasteland on a blog or set Albert Schweitzer’s theology to music.
But this year the government has given us a Public Domain Day present – hope that we won’t have to wait for 10 more years to see new public domain works in Australia. Proposals in an exposure draft released on 23 December would align the term of protection of published and unpublished works, reversing the perpetual copyright term which currently applies to unpublished works in Australia. This means that 1 January 2018 would see literally millions of old unpublished works from our national collections enter the public domain all at once. This would include recipes used by Captain Cook, letters written by Jane Austen and endless files of meeting minutes, correspondence, stocktake lists and all kind of ephemera.
Some of these will be of obvious cultural value, others may only be of interest to a few highly specialized scholars. The net benefit however, is the unlocking of whole a pool of resources, knowledge and information that adds to the knowledge capital of the country.
So, here’s to a more exciting Public Domain Day in 2018, when the librarians can finally hang up their aprons, crack open the champagne and celebrate the new members of our knowledge commons.