Public Domain Day

Riyadh Abdul Aziz, The first of January of every year is the day in which copyright protection over many works expires allowing these works to enter the public domain and become legally available to the public for copying, remixing, and sharing free of charge.

Copyright protection is not forever. It only lasts for a specific period of time after which the works becomes public property. The term of copyright protection usually lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 50 or 70 years depending on the domestic law of the country. Copyright operates this way because it is meant to provide a balance between providing an incentive for authors to create on the one hand and allowing society to benefit from cultural works on the other.

The public domain is very important as it provides the building blocks of culture which we all can consume, learn from, and build upon as they are available to everyone to use free of charge. These works include ancient works such as those of Aristotle and Galileo, but also include more modern 20th century creators. For example, in Oman, the works of Tolstoy, Gandhi, Orwell, Gibran, and hundreds of others are already in the public domain and can be translated into Arabic, published locally for teaching in schools, or shared on the Internet legally for free.

Even though public domain works are not themselves protected by copyright, derivatives of public domain works are, and they cannot be used without the permission of the author. For example, if someone makes a new translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, that translation would be protected by copyright. The same goes for movies, comics, and plays based on public domain works. This protection of derivatives of public domain works allows creators to make a profit out of their derivative works and consequently enrich society culturally further.

With the exception of Bahrain, Morocco, and Oman, all Arab countries have a general copyright term of the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. The remaining three countries have a copyright term of the lifetime of the author plus 70 years as a result of their signature of free trade agreements with the US.

Even though copyright law is important for the creation of new works, the size of the public domain is even more important for society. There is no evidence that additional extension of copyright protection for periods beyond the lifetime of the author contributes to the creation of more works, while it has a material impact on the number of works available to the public. Countries that have a copyright term of the lifetime of the author plus 70 years, such as Oman, are at a disadvantage in comparison to their neighbours who have shorter copyright terms. These countries provide their people with free legal access to more cultural works which can help them in learning from, and participating in, worldwide culture.

Governments should resist foreign pressures to increase the term of copyright protection further and instead should focus on providing the public with more access rights that help society enjoy cultural works.