What is the public domain? If you look it up in a dictionary, you will find definitions like "The status of publications, products, and processes that are not protected under patent or copyright" or "Property rights that are held by the public at large". Another important question is what are copyrights and patents. Section 8, clause 8 of the US Constitution says: "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." What that, and related court rulings such as Wheaton v. Peters 1834, US v. Paramount Pictures 1948 and Sony v. Universal City Studios, 1984 are saying is that an idea, once publicly expressed, belongs to everyone, but it is good for society to give creative people an incentive to create. Toward this end, the law temporarily gives exclusive rights to them, on loan from us all, in the form of copyrights and patents. During the term of a copyright, no one may make copies of a work, or create derivative works based on it, without the permission of the copyright holder. There are certain exceptions to the rule such the fair use principle, and the first sale principle, but authors and corporations who employ them enjoy a great deal of control. Again, this is not ownership, but a loan.
Copyright originally lasted fourteen years, and was renewable only once; but greedy copyright holders and their lawyers have tried to make their exclusive rights perpetual. In the past forty years, they coined the dubious term, "intellectual property," and have convinced Congress to extend the term of copyright eleven times. The most recent extension was named after Sonny Bono and paid for by Michael Eisner. It prevented Mickey Mouse from reverting back to the public domain, which would have happened in 2004. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extends the term of copyrights by twenty years. Their duration is now the life of the author, plus seventy years. The term for corporate-held copyrights is now ninety-five years. Since the Supreme Court refused to overturn this in the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case, they can pass another term extension every twenty years. As The Uncoveror wrote previously, we have all been robbed.
Since the Eldred vs. Ashcroft decision came down, I have been hoping for something to come along that would demonstrate the value of the public domain. That something has come along in a form I did not anticipate: A Hollywood movie called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The film is an action-adventure set in the year 1899 based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Although the league was their idea, the extraordinary gentlemen in question were all drawn from stories written before 1923, so they are in the public domain. Copyrights on these works have expired. These characters belong to the whole world, and anyone may write stories about them. As a result, we have a summer blockbuster I enjoyed so thoroughly that it made me feel like a kid again. Allan Quatermain, the great hunter and hero from King Solomon's Mines, leads a group including Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dorian Gray, Mina from Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Invisible Man, and Tom Sawyer against an evil madman who wants to start World War I fifteen years early, and profit from it immensely.
If copyright lasted forever, as some greedy corporations, their lawyers, and legislators who dance to their tune want, this movie and the graphic novel it was based on would not have been possible. Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill would have been required to track down the heirs of all the original authors, and ask for permission to create a derivative work. These heirs could have refused, or asked for outrageous royalties. If no heirs could be found, they would have to assume that permission was not given, or risk being sued if someone eventually did come forward.
I encourage everyone who enjoys adventure stories to see this picture. I had a blast! At last, here is something tangible that can be used to demonstrate the value of the public domain. I hope that Congress, and the courts finally "get it."