Public Domain is Effectively Dead

We’re all aware of the fact that copyrighted works eventually go into public domain. Well that’s how it used to work, now the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress can re-copyright public domain works:

Congress may take books, musical compositions and other works out of the public domain, where they can be freely used and adapted, and grant them copyright status again, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

In a 6-2 ruling, the court ruled that just because material enters the public domain, it is not “territory that works may never exit.” (PDF)

The top court was ruling on a petition by a group of orchestra conductors, educators, performers, publishers and film archivists who urged the justices to reverse an appellate court that ruled against the group, which has relied on artistic works in the public domain for their livelihoods.

This ruling has farther implications that some may realize. There is a huge amount of public domain works out there, many of which are made freely available by sites like Project Gutenberg. Unfortunately if Congress were to renew the copyright on some of these public domain works these sites would find themselves in violation of copyright law and therefore be subject to arrest.

Another possible problem with this ruling is the fact Congress may have the ability to copyright works that were never copyrighted previously. Many authors put out material as public domain from the start, allowing people to download these works and use them in any way they see fit.

When you combine this ruling with legislation like SOPA or PROTECT-IP things get very frightening indeed. For example we will take a hypothetical piece of dissenting literature made freely available under public domain. For the sake of this discussion let’s say somebody within Congress finds this piece of literature extremely unsavory and wants it removed. In order to get it removed he works with other members of Congress to re-copyright the work. Shortly after the work is re-copyrighted the domains of every provider are seized in an effort to enact censorship of the work.

While some will claim such thing couldn’t happen in the United States the truth is it can. We live in a police state where our government is working around the clock to eliminate the rights of free speech, trial by jury, and to be secure in our belongings. Legislation like the PATRIOT Act and the new section in the National Defense Authorization Act have ensured the latter two are entirely gone but the government still has work to do on eliminating the freedom of speech. This ruling combined with legislation like SOPA and PROTECT-IP are the endgame.