Public-domain works are those that are not protected by copyright or patent laws. Such materials can be legally copied or electronically transmitted without seeking permission, paying royalties, or fearing prosecution. Although works may be in the public domain for a number of reasons, it's usually because they were created before copyright laws existed or their copyright! patent protections have expired.
Even in the 18th century, our forefathers recognized the importance of allowing works to pass into the public domain after "authors and inventors" had adequate time to benefit commercially. By including a copyright clause in the U.S. Constitution, its drafters sought a higher purpose: to ensure the eventual availability of "writings and discoveries" without regard to limitations of geography or income.
So it was with disappointment that I learned of the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year concerning the legality of the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act. As my co-columnist George H. Pike reported in a NewsBreak (http://www..infotoday.comlnewsbreaksfnb030l20-1.htm), Congress will continue to extend the terms of copyrighted and patented works. Although solid arguments were made for the Constitution's provision that writings and discoveries be protected "for limited times," the court's decision was disappointing for those of us who favor public-domain access. The ruling may mean that commercially protected works will have their copyrights extended indefinitely, especially if the entertainment and publishing industries sustain their powerful lobbying efforts.
Center for the Public Domain
Fortunately, since November 1999, the Center for the Public Domain has strongly encouraged creators and copyright holders to pass their works into the public domain. Formerly called the Red Hat Center, the organization is a private foundation based in Durham, N.C.
In September 2000, the center, in collaboration with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, launched ibiblio.org, also referred to as "the public's library and digital archive." This collection of Internet-based, open source software, music, art, and literature features an impressive amount of public-domain material. Works are organized in several ways for easy access, including an alphabetical collection index, Universal Decimal Collection, and a search engine.
Last year, with the support of various publishers and leading legal scholars-- including Lawrence Lessig, who argued (and unfortunately lost) the Copyright Term Extension Act case before the Supreme Court--the center was instrumental in providing the financial backing for Creative Commons, a new non-profit copyright-licensing organization. The launch was reported in a NewsBreak by Wallys W. Conhaim (http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb020603-2.htm).
Located at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, Creative Commons offers a unique approach to licensing copyrighted content. Its emphasis is on establishing copyright protections that are different from those outlined in the U.S. Copyright Act. Like the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), Creative Commons is a clearinghouse for granting permission rights. Any copyright holder (publisher, author, musician, artist, etc.) can register his or her work with the organization. …