In defense of the public domain

Do you enjoy legally downloading classical music for free? How about reading some of the most seminal literary works of past times for free online? Okay, fine, so maybe I enjoy those things more than most people, but even if you aren’t a big fan of Bach or Shakespeare, you’ve probably benefited from “public domain” copyright laws, whether you know it or not. The Supreme Court has in front of it a case that could go a long way toward determining the fate of works that exist in the “public domain,” or works that existed before copyright laws and therefore are free for everyone to have and use. The piece of legislation in question is a 1994 law passed by Congress, which took multiple foreign works that belonged to the public domain, including, according to The New York Times, “films by Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini, books by C. S. Lewis and Virginia Woolf, symphonies by Prokofiev and Stravinsky and paintings by Picasso, including ‘Guernica,'” and gave publishers sole copyright rights over them. This is troubling for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, Congress seems to have no incentive to be doing this kind of pilfering from the public domain. The history of copyright laws is relatively short and definitely confusing, but I’m sure not too many people are beating themselves up over the fact that authors and artists whose works predate current copyright laws are missing out on valuable royalty revenues; especially because they are, without exception, dead by now. The way I see it, nobody who deserves credit for these works is getting any by their being given to private publishers. Rather, it is only inhibiting the creative pursuits of those wishing for easy access to them. Just ask Lawrence Golan, who is not only a plaintiff in this suit, but also the conductor of Yakima, Wash. Symphony Orchestra. “Once you own a Beethoven symphony, you own it till it falls apart. That used to be the case with Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Now an orchestra that wants to play – say, Shostakovich’s Fifth – has to rent it for $800 for one performance.” Does that seem right to anyone? It certainly doesn’t seem right to me. I’m sure if you brought in an expert in copyright law to argue the finer points of copyright with me, he would be able to explain why this is justified in some way. However, I’m not concerned with that. I’m concerned with how practical issues like this affect the people, especially those with creative ventures to worry about. Public domain exists the way it does for a reason. Congress does the things it does for a reason as well, although Congress’ reasons often seem to be shrouded in a veil of question marks and selfish behavior. All I can say is that I hope the Supreme Court gets this one right and rules in favor of keeping the public domain public.