(Not so) happy Public Domain Day!

01 Jan 2015

There’s not much to celebrate for Public Domain Day in Australia this year.

Written by Trish Hepworth

All around the world today people are celebrating the works that enter the public domain. But there’s not much to celebrate in Australia, where nothing will enter the public domain for another 10 years.

When the copyright expires in a work it enters the ‘public domain’. The public domain is the pool of cultural works that can be reimagined, adapted and used as inspiration without copyright restrictions. In the same way that Disney repurposed 1001 Arabian Nights to become the smash hit ‘Aladdin’ or Peter Warlock takes Arbeau’s Renaissance dances as the base of his ‘Capriol Suite’, great art works, (and not-so-great works) draw on the public domain commons.

So artists and academics in New Zealand or Canada (countries with 50 years after death copyright terms) can now build upon The Sword in the Stone, Silent Spring, the works of Cole Porter and numerous others.

But these works will not enter the public domain in Australia for another 20 years. In signing the AUSFTA we agreed to institute a 20 year copyright term extension, so anything that was in copyright when the ratification legislation went through was suddenly subject to as 70 year after death copyright term. This means that the works of Australian authors Arthur Upfield and Nettie Palmer still require permission to use, as well as works that would have previously fallen into the public domain in recent years, such as the works of Australians Percy Grainger (composer), Lionel Lindsay (artist) and Mary Gilmore (author and journalist).

At least works that were out of copyright when the term extension was implemented remained out of copyright. So works that are just entering the public domain in Europe such as Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince* or Munch’s ‘The Scream’ have been public domain for 10 years in Australia, and will continue to be so.

The Scream by Edvard Munch. The painting features a person on cliffside walkway holding their head in their hands and their mouth is open in anguish.

Image: The Scream (1893). Edvard Munch. Public domain. Full attribution information below.

But the real significance is not the famous works.  Easily identifiable, potentially still commercial works are one thing.  But the term extension applied to all books, all photos, all random advertisements, brochures and articles. These works have no commercial value, no incentive to wade through the copyright mire and make accessible. Which leads to the mildly ridiculous situation where it is easier to find out information about many rural communities in the 1930s than from the 1960s, leading to a very ‘black and white’ (occasionally sepia) view of Australian history. And that doesn’t even touch on the problems posed by orphan works, those for which no author is known.

Recommendations to address the problems of orphan works, to enable cultural institutions to digitise and make available Australian history and artists to reuse and repurposes parts of works in some circumstances have been recently made by the Australian Law Reform Commission. Seeing as we are now stuck with 70 year terms, ensuring they don’t needlessly curtail our culture would be a positive step. 

*Note that some of the artworks in the Little Prince will be in copyright until 2045 in France, even though they are public domain in the rest of Europe on 1 Jan 2015. They may also have some trademark protection.


This blog post was cross-posted on the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee (ALCC) blog.



A summary (in bold) and tags were added to this blog post, the attribution details were updated and minor copy edits were made when it was republished on our new website.


Image: The Scream (1893). Edvard Munch. Oil tempera and pastel on cardboard. Nasjonalmuseet (National Gallery (Norway)). Available on the Nasjonalmuseet website, samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/object/NG.M.00939. In the public domain. Reusable with no restrictions.

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