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Special report

Public Domain Day 2024

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By SnowFire
Steamboat Willie, starring one Mickey Mouse, public domain as of January 1, 2024

January 1, 1928. A day that will live in... famy? After fears that the public domain (PD) would remain frozen forever, it started... very slowly... moving forward again in 2019 in the United States. This year's Public Domain Day is unusually momentous, as a certain rodent you may know has finally been set loose. One of the driving forces behind multiple rounds of copyright extension in the United States over the last century was lobbying from the Disney corporation. The most recent of them, the 1998 Mickey Mouse Protection Act, was called that for a reason: repeated copyright extensions allowed Disney to keep their grasp on the oldest iterations of Mickey, whose first appearance was in the 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie. It locked up tons of other harmless photographs and books in limbo as well, which was just too bad as far as Disney was concerned. However, we did not see another extension, and now Steamboat Willie has entered the public domain, along with a massive pile of other works.

More specifically: works published in 1928 are now unconditionally in the public domain in the United States (many lesser works were probably already public domain due to not being renewed, but now there's no need to verify the lack of renewal). In countries that use author's life plus some number of years, that means a few things: in "life + 70" countries, authors who died in 1953 had their works hit the public domain; and in "life + 50" countries, authors who died in 1973 have their works in the public domain. There are some complications here for Wikipedia though, which we will get into shortly.

This topic has been covered in a number of places, so here are some useful links:

What can I do (on Wikimedia projects)?

The Passion of Joan of Arc is now public domain in the United States... but probably not in France, since director Carl Theodor Dreyer died in 1968, and France uses life of the author + 70 years. And it's possible that other sufficiently major contributors to the film also died in 1953 or later.

Works are now free to use! Well. With caution. In general, copyright issues are something that it's best not to start uploading too aggressively on if you aren't sure. Copyright status will affect whether you ought to upload to English Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and/or Wikisource.

Step 1: Finding it

The above links already include the major works entering the public domain. However, you can go hunting for more obscure works, if you like. Category:1928 works and its subcategories are a good start. You can also browse around the Internet Archive; this is a preloaded query for works from 1928 that you can adjust to taste with other keywords, authors, or titles.

Step 2: Is it actually in the public domain?

A still image from Charlie Chaplin's The Circus. Pause the movie wherever you like and extract images like this (see File:The Circus (1928) by Charlie Chaplin (restored version).webm).
See also: Commons:Hirtle chart and Commons:Copyright rules by territory

Step 3: Using it

Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa. A scan with downloadable PDF was already on , so an editor uploaded it to Commons, and a transcription project at Wikisource is underway, but incomplete: Wikisource index.).

The easiest thing to do is go upload some images! You can flip through those newly public domain books or pause old 1928 silent films, then upload extracted images to Commons. Then use them on Wikipedia.

For largely textual works, this means that long quotes are now permissible to use on Wikipedia, as long as you attribute it. I don't think this will come up very often unless someone finds and uploads a major 1928 reference work – Category:1928 non-fiction books is slim pickings, but perhaps the Small Soviet Encyclopedia? Be careful here, though; back in the day, some Wikipedia articles were preloaded with the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica (see Template:EB1911), and sometimes it's better to have nothing at all than to have something a century out of date. Here's a preloaded search of 1928 encyclopedias at the Internet Archive; mostly some 1928 publications of The New International Encyclopedia and World Book Encyclopedia, which are maybe mildly more up-to-date than earlier editions.

For the most deluxe treatment, if you think that there's sufficient interest in a work that digitizing the text is valuable rather than flipping through images, there is Wikisource, our local transcription site (think Project Gutenberg). Basically, you'll want to follow the procedure at Help:Adding texts. Hopefully a PDF of the scanned book already exists at the Internet Archive (for major works, it probably does);[a] you'll upload that PDF to Commons after making triple-sure that it really is free content in both the US and its source country. (And make sure you upload the 1928-or-earlier scan, not a later printing or edition.) Then follow the Wikisource instructions; you can create a page-by-page transcription as well as combined full-chapter webpages that span across multiple scanned pages. This will be much faster and easier if the PDF already has the text natively, of course, rather than relying on the fallback Wikisource OCR and manually fixing its many errors. Making a Wikisource edition might make sense for the most popular or important texts. After this is all done, go to the External links section of the Wikipedia article on the scanned work, and proudly link your contribution with Template:Wikisource-inline! (See s:The Prose Edda (Brodeur 1916) for an example finished work, or Index:The House at Pooh Corner for an example in-progress work.)

What can I do (as a person)?

This is the section where we give the usual free content enthusiast whining about copyright law, and how maybe you can do your part by informing your local representative / duke / overlord of the merits of an active public domain. That it would be better if copyright terms were much, much shorter, or if, at the very least, that we went back to a system of having to renew copyright registrations, meaning that orphan works could be freed for general use. Unfortunately, there is a problem here. The Hippocratic Oath says "First, do no harm," but every time politicians have looked at copyrights, it has almost always been to greatly extend them, even when it made negative sense to do so.[b] The Copyright Act of 1976 passed 316–7 and 97–0; the 1998 Sonny Bono Act passed by a voice vote (i.e. it wasn't controversial enough for a recorded vote). Calling up your local politician and encouraging them to start a new copyright-related bill may well make the problem worse, not better, judging by the track record so far.

Copyright length in the United States, which was substantially extended in 1976 and 1998. The Hirtle chart has more details on what to do in each case.

You might think based on the above that, even if 95 years is too long, at least we'll see a steady march into the public domain year-by-year. That's a nice thought — and it will be true for a while — but in reality things are much worse. As overly long as the US's copyright term for 1929-1977 works is, life-of-the-author + 70 years is usually even longer, and that's the system we'll be in for works published after 1978, even American works.[c] Granted, most of the people reading this will be dead in 2072,[citation needed] but that doesn't make it any better. Consider an unknown photograph obviously made in 1980 with a listed creator (so not anonymous), but the name is extremely generic and no information can be found on them. When will this photograph be safe-ish to use, assuming no further changes to copyright terms? Well, maybe a precocious 10-year old took the picture, and maybe they lived a long and full life to age 105, and maybe someone with a claim to their estate is extremely litigious. Math time: 1980 - 10 + 105 + 70 = the year of our Lord 2145 that this picture from 1980 is safely public domain. At least under the classic US system of mostly caring about publication date, at some point tracking down vague authors becomes irrelevant.

So, here is a modest proposal, which "merely" requires modifying international treaties a little. There should be a fallback instituted that says that the copyright term is either author's life + X years or Y years since publication, whichever is shorter. Copyright terms already extend far, far after everyone involved was dead. To avoid hypothetical 10-year old photographers & artists locking up orphan works forever, even a weak rule that said "copyright term is either author's life + 70 years, or 120 years after publication," would be a step forward. Ideally, something stronger would be nice (say, a global 95 years after publication limit? Or even 75 years after publication?), but we'll take what we can get at this point. Does anyone know any world leaders and can get this through?

  1. ^ If the PDF doesn't exist, you may be stuck on the rockier road of obtaining a 1928 edition and scanning it in yourself. Which will be a service toward the public commons, so go to it, but... a lot more work, for sure.
  2. ^ Easiest example: the irrational extension of old copyrights, rather than merely extending new ones. People doing creative work in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s thought that the reward from a mere 56 years of copyright was sufficient to produce their art; unless they were psychic or possessed a time travel machine, extending the copyright after the art was made wasn't going to encourage them to retroactively produce more of it. But it certainly would make the companies that held the rights money longer, so.
  3. ^ Although the good news is that works-for-hire will still expire 95 years after publication for post-1978 works. But, to my limited knowledge, there are borderline cases where it might not be clear if something really qualifies for that, and the only way to decide the issue would be to expensively go to court. Under the older rules, there's no fear of a litigious estate suing and claiming that they had a lingering authorship copyright.
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I intend to subsist solely on kale and quinoa so I can categorize Picasso on commons on my 198th birthday. No Swan So Fine (talk) 12:57, 12 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]

The copyright terms are ridiculously too long.Vulcan❯❯❯Sphere! 14:40, 12 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]

@Kosboot: As a foreign, I can't speak for the US, but another good example comes from the recent statements of the Italian Court of Audit, which I covered in a previous issue. Yes, it's kind of a shameless plug, but I hope it's justified... : D Oltrepier (talk) 21:02, 14 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]
Agreed. In my opinion, works should be released into the public domain at most 50 years after publication in my opinion, and even that's too long.
Also, copyright laws did not consider for the fact that in their future, anybody could share and remix almost anything and everything easily. QuickQuokka [⁠talkcontribs] 13:53, 16 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]
No, it should be from creation, not publication. Determining when something was first published is difficult, and many photographs and manuscripts were never published. Hawkeye7 (discuss) 23:44, 21 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]

Missing in the article

What I miss in the article is the celebration of Public Domain Day 2024 on Commons. All files that have been restored 1 - 10 January because of Public Domain Day + newly uploaded files, are now available at the project page c:Commons:Public Domain Day/2024. Romaine (talk) 22:23, 12 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]

Here's a question

About 10 years ago, I took a photograph of a statue in a public park. The statue had recently been commissioned and the artist paid for it by the city government. Thus, I contributed a few pennies from my taxes for the creation of that statue in that public park that anyone could see and photograph. I posted my photograph of the statue on a Wikipedia page -- and it was removed by someone who said I was violating the copyright of the artist. Was I? Why? Smallchief (talk) 11:59, 14 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]

@Smallchief: Well... I've genuinely no idea, but maybe SnowFire can help us! Oltrepier (talk) 21:24, 14 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]
I am not an expert here on sculptures; I'd mostly be quoting from Freedom_of_panorama#Notable_lawsuits_concerning_sculptures and c:Commons:Public art and copyrights in the US. My understanding is that if the sculpture was truly generic where the "sculptor" was just a employee hammering out a paint-by-numbers generic thingy that's a glorified lamppost, then there might be no right to it (as there's either no creative element). Alternatively, if a federal government employee made it as part of performance of their duties, it might be public domain (uncharted territory here - does this even ever happen? Sounds like it was the municipal government anyway.) If the artist built a sculpture then sold it, even if it was directed by the government, then the artist probably does have some rights, and then there's all the usual questions about if the artist has freely licensed the work. However, per the Commons link above, if the statue is from before 1989, it's probably public domain due to the annoyance of registering a copyright on a sculpture. (This is not legal advice.) SnowFire (talk) 23:12, 14 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]
Thanks for the expert comment. Smallchief (talk) 02:06, 15 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]
Please see: Commons:Public_art_and_copyrights_in_the_US- kosboot (talk) 00:59, 15 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]
Sorry - this is the correct link: c:COM:PACUSA kosboot (talk) 13:08, 15 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]
That answers my question. I likely violated copyright law by publishing a photo of the statue on Wikipedia. But...I think the copyright law is ridiculous -- offering far too much protection to authors, sculptors, etc. Moreover, if I were the artist who created the statue I mentioned above, I would be delighted to have it displayed on Wikipedia: free publicity and recognition rather than wallowing in obscurity. Smallchief (talk) 13:22, 15 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]
It is, yes.
If you really want to go down the rabbit hole: you can try and look up who the sculptor was, and then ask them for permission - either via the sculptor posting on their website that they've licensed works X, Y, and Z under cc-by-sa, or via convincing the sculptor to follow the process at c:Commons:Volunteer_Response_Team#Declaration_of_consent_for_all_enquiries. Given that the odds of someone abusing the license to create a line of knock-off statues is... remote... it should be safe-ish for the sculptor. (Technically it gives up the legal right to mess with, like, a band of Illinois Nazis using the image too, except that with Google Image search, that's nearly impossible to stop anyway.) SnowFire (talk) 18:45, 15 January 2024 (UTC)[reply]


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