Writing, speaking, and translating the future

Copyright in the age of bits. Is the public domain dead?

Copyright in the age of bits. Is the public domain dead? 1

Okay let’s first get a few things clear. Copyright has completely altered our relationship to books and we have Sonny Bono and Mickey mouse to blame for that.

Bono sponsored an extension of Copyright to protect Walt Disney’s characters. It seems Disney is a little sensitive about their beloved character’s since The Air Pirates made them perform lewd and illegal acts to the delight of U.S. counterculture of the late ’60’s and early ’70s. But that story is for another post.

This act extended individual copyright from the life of the author + 50 years to the life of the author + 70 years. But the real bonus was for corporate authors, where copyright protection went from  75 years to 120 years from publication!

This is out of proportion from the original Copyright act of 1790 and it will have far-reaching effects. The act of 1790 allotted the U.S. author, chartmaker, and mapmaker a copyright of 14 years with the ability to extend it for another 14 years if they were still alive. Newspapers, musical scores and the works of Foreign authors were explicitly prohibited. This of course encouraged the infringement of foreign authors works in English, but I digress.

Since the Copyright extension act, two other important acts have extended copyright even further. The Digital Millennium Copyright act and the Family and Entertainment Copyright act affect the distribution and usage of copyrighted works further limiting a user’s ability to own the material.

So within book publication what is the result of all this? To be honest I think it is still not all that clear.  In the discussion that follows I will look at the fundamental changes that are central to ebooks and ereaders.


1) Ebooks are licensed not owned. You are licensing a digital file rather than buying a physical object. This fundamentally changes the publishing business model and will have cascading effects on every reader, ebook owner, and used book salesman in the world.

2) Convenience and access to public domain materials and lesser known authors will improve, but so will the proliferation of poorly edited and designed reading materials. This means there will a lot more poor quality material but it also means that publishers will not decide our selection of reading materials.

These two premises will guide many of the discussions that follow. I feel that though the effect may not be clear, these premises will be at the center of the next media boom- ebooks.

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