There is a great article on Techdirt.com by Mike Masnick which talks about how the remakes of Alice in Wonderland illustrate the good that can come out of material being in the public domain. He very clearly makes the point that endeavors based on public domain material can succeed financially, and, that in fact, there is an artistic freedom to the projects that might not exist if the source material were still under copyright.
While Masnick’s argument makes the point that public domain material can still make money, the article also captures the essence of what the public domain is supposed to be about: work entering the collective culture of our society and becoming the building blocks for other works of art. And the fact that a high profile public domain work is so successful today makes it even sadder that this year, absolutely nothing enters the public domain in the United States.
That fact has serious consequences for the future. Think about it for a moment – these great versions of Alice in Wonderland might not even exist if not for the public domain. My husband’s last jazz CD, Tidings of Comfort and Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas, was completly based on public domain songs. If the original material were not in the public domain so that Jim could freely write his own arrangements of these classics, it is questionable whether the CD would have ever been made. So projects like these cannot exist without a wealth of public domain material for artists to draw upon.
Because of the strong lobbying of congress by studios and corporations to further extend the term of copyright protection, the public domain is indeed shrinking. For an interesting (and prophetic) look at how the American people’s interests are not being represented, I highly recommend law professor Jessica Litman’s book Digital Copyright. The book is very readable for a lay person and offers a shockingly honest look at the workings of copyright law in the United States. Like me, you may be left wondering exactly who represents the interests of the people.
To learn more about the public domain, see The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School.