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Welcome to 2019 – not just a day, but a year of the Public Domain

Those who follow our blog will know that we always publish an article at New Years, to celebrate Public Domain Day, the day when copyright terms expire and new works fall into the public domain.

However, for the last few years, it’s been a sombre post, as we’ve discussed the fact that since 2006 almost nothing has fallen into the public domain in Australia, thanks to the 20 year term extension introduced as part of the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement. We’ve got to wait until 2026 until for the effects of that extension to stop.

But this all changes today. Thanks to changes to introduced by the Copyright Amendment (Disability Access and Other Measures) Act 2017 today millions of items from our national collections – from Captain Cook’s carrot marmalade recipe and Henry Lawson’s letters to war posters and theses – will fall out of copyright for the first time, finally becoming free for all to use.

Those who remember the fabulous Cooking for Copyright campaign in 2015 will also remember that an aberration of Australian law has meant that unpublished materials – from letters to diaries to shipping manifests – currently remain in copyright in perpetuity. While very occasionally a copyright owner will still call for perpetual copyright, most people acknowledge this is a Very Bad Idea, because it essentially means you are being asked to find Captain Cook’s descendants if you want to publish, adapt or do anything else to his carrot marmalade recipe – an impossible task and ridiculous rule. This means the materials become locked, unuseable outside of a handful of exceptions.

The new laws starting today change all that by simply treating unpublished materials the same as their published counterparts. This means most of Australia’s national collection will now have a copyright term of 70 years after the author’s death, or 70 years from creation for audiovisual materials.

Excitingly, the changes also create a new term of 70 years for orphan works ie materials with unknown authors. This is essential because (as you’ll note above) the copyright term for most materials is dependent on the date of the author’s death. So previously, if you didn’t know who the author is, you couldn’t work out when the copyright ended, leaving the material in limbo until someone was willing to take a chance on it – say 150 years after it was created. These changes will give a certain (and much shorter) end date to copyright for these materials of 70 years from when they were created or made public, letting them enter the cultural conversation for us.

But best of all – these changes end the public domain day drought for Australia. From now on, every 1 January, more and more materials will enter the public domain for us all to share, remix and enjoy.

Our friends over at the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee have put together a list of some of the materials that will finally be freed by the new provisions, including:

  • Captain Cook’s diaries and Jane Austen’s correspondence held at the National Library of Australia;
  • Ephemera from both World Wars, including posters, postcards, and advertising;
  • Handwritten manuscripts and letters from numerous Australian poets, including Henry Lawson and famed miners’ poet and socialist, Marie Pitt;
  • The personal papers of a multitude of former Australian politicians, including Governor General Sir Isaac Isaacs and Premier of South Australia Sir James Penn Boucaut;
  • Soldiers’ letters home, including love letters from acclaimed WWII RAAF pilot, Charles Learmonth;
  • Indigenous language research from the papers of former Protector of Aborigines Archibald Meston;
  • The records of one of Tasmania’s first banks, the Derwent Bank, including its historic “Convict Savings Bank” accounts.

They’re also have a handy fact sheet explaining the changes in detail (for the real copyright geeks our there) and are enter the public domain in America today (or rather in the next 24 hours, when the timezones role around). Because our term laws are different from the US, some of these were already in the public domain in Australia, and some still aren’t. Such is the fun of international copyright law.

After a 2018 that was pretty hard for most of us, let’s all take a moment to celebrate the wins – including one more nail in the coffin of perpetual copyright. And the fact that we are now free to make gifs from some pretty awesome old war posters and advertisements. Have at ’em!

Image credits
Title: Women! help Australia’s sons win the war [picture] : buy war loan bonds
Created/Published: Sydney, John Sands, [1915-1918]
Copyright: Public Domain
From the collection of the National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135721145/view

Image credits
Title: Buy war loan bonds
Created/Published: Melbourne, F.W. Niven & Co., [between 1914 and 1918]
Copyright: Public Domain
From the collection of the National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-138355441/view

Image credits
Title: My soldier [picture] : Seventh War Loan, buy bonds
Created/Published: Sydney, Mason, Firth & McCutcheon, [1918?]
Copyright: Public Domain
From the collection of the National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135720801/view