Welcome to Public Domain Day 2018 – a historical day for both good and bad reasons.
Public Domain day occurs on 1 January every year because, under global copyright rules, that is the day that copyright terms expire, legally placing thousands of works into the public domain and making them free for anyone to use. We celebrate it as a time to recognise and reflect on the important role that the pool of freely available and reusable copyright works – from Shakespeare to the Bible to the writings of Socrates and Darwin – play in building creativity, innovation, science and culture.
In recent years Australia has had a sombre Public Domain Day. Thanks to the 2006 copyright term extension made as part of the US Free Trade Agreement, no works have fallen into the public domain in Australia for the last 10 years.
The bad news – this remains the same for 2018. Once again we have to recognise that in other parts of the world the works of John Coltrane, Dorothy Parker, J Robert Oppenheimer, Alice B. Toklas and even Che Guevara will now be free for new use, while they remain locked down in Australia. And that no works will be entering the public domain in Australia today.
The good news – this is the last year that that will happen. Thanks to the copyright term changes introduced by the Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and Other Measures) Act 2017, from 2019 Australia will once again have a growing public domain.
This Act, which was passed in June and came into effect on 22 December, ends the antiquated concept of perpetual copyright for unpublished works, instead applying the same basic terms to all materials, regardless of whether they are published or not. It also applies flat terms to orphan works whose authors cannot be identified of 70 years from when they were created or made public (this fact sheet on the changes from the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee explains what all this means).
When these laws come into effect on 1 January 2019 they will apply to all works currently protected by copyright in Australia. This means that literally millions of old unpublished works from our national collections will enter the public domain all at once, including recipes used by Captain Cook, letters written by Jane Austen and endless ephemera. Every year after that, unpublished works whose authors died 70 years earlier will also fall into the public domain, and orphan works created/made public 70 years earlier.
So let’s commemorate Public Domain Day in 2018 by looking forward to the celebrations for 2019, when our Public Domain comes alive again.