Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Protecting the Public Domain

Major Web companies oppose Britain's proposed Digital Copyright bill because of a provision which would allow lawmakers to change the copyright laws in the future. Some people, both online and off-, don't appreciate how artists and creators use works in the public domain and, as a creator who employs both free-license works and those in the public domain, I wanted to explain this a bit:

As a creator, I certainly believe we should be allowed to profit from our work. While others, particularly young creators, don't fully appreciate this, it's largely due to a lack of understanding. Being paid for your work does not necessarily invalidate the work - in fact, in other industries, being paid more for your work actually indicates you do it better than those who get paid less! Of course, it goes without saying that some artists will farm-out their work (hire "ringers" to "fill-in" for them), allow the quality of their product to slip, and so on - basically lose their integrity, or simply sell it.

The law of public domain basically says that a work is protected by copyright for 50-70 years from the creator's death. This allows his family, estate, et.al., to continue to reap the benefits of that work after his death. In a country which holds families responsible for dead peoples' debts, this can be important! But more importantly, all fathers and families want to provide for their friends and loved ones, and this allows them a chance to do so - consider how many artists/creators, and/or their works, become posthumously famous!

But there are all sorts of impediments which cause setbacks and can even kill projects. Material in the public domain can often alleviate these problems. For instance, many of the pictures on the site are from free-licensed works or works in the public domain. Creating similar works from scratch would take far longer than it does to modify free ones - when it is even possible! This is not necessarily an "easy way out." Actually, some of the works I modified for use took hours - even days! - and I specifically chose to go that route because something about those original works inspired the finished products.

Further, there are some images that are really more about the content than the execution: if I want to include the image of a castle in ruins, a drawing is less powerful - not to mention removing it from context - it also may not be that important. The picture of Eastgate (Chill) is neither completely representative of that section of Vincent nor modified; it was only included to suggest - to hopefully inspire the correct imagery in players' minds - and because of this, there was no need to waste much-needed resources on creating an original work to accomplish this. This is one of the best reasons for public domain!

We've all seen documentaries which include public domain film to illustrate something - such as the mindset of the time, or to simply show the subject. Probably the best, and most oft-used (to my mind and taste), is the use of scenes from Nosferatu whenever the subject of vampires, and especially films about vampires, is discussed. While the title vampire bears no resemblance to modern-day pop-fiction vampires, the imagery is striking and resonant, and communicates volumes about the subject without words. Literally showing a few frames of this film allows the narrator to conserve hundreds, even thousands, of words and move forward in the discussion - it saves time, it communicates effectively, and on this level, it makes for better work!

So while I am completely for rewarding the creator/artist for his work, I am also for protecting the public domain for these, and many other, reasons. Last, but far from least, many of these works would have already disappeared, were they not in the public domain!

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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