Public Domain Acceleration Plan – My Un-Modest Proposal

I’m going to introduce you to my public domain acceleration plan, which may be excessive and not even cost-effective, but I still want to put it out there.

What is the problem with public domain now?

The public domain is extremely important. Vital to art and history and culture. And the United States has a public domain that’s extremely archaic and falling well behind. Currently, art up to the 1970s is stuck, waiting up to 95 years before it enters the public domain. And anything since then won’t enter until seventy years after the creator’s death, or ninety years for a corporate work.

That’s a LOT of time for the most part. Yeah, stuff like Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, or a Beatles album, they’re still healthy and thriving 50+ years later. But for the vast, VAST majority of art produced in the world, it’s just sitting there in a corner. Orphan works whose copyright holder is unknown or missing. Uncommercial work tossed in a large conglomerate’s bin for decades because it just can’t make them money anymore. I’d say well over 90% of books, music, comics, and video games are out of print, not available in legal digital form, and never will be found again until they go public domain. TV and movies will be a little higher, but not much.

But with the current system, we will be waiting nearly a century for most of this work to enter the public domain. Even if the rights holders are unknown or ambivalent, it will still eventually be lost.

Take something as obscure and forgotten as Generation X. A TV movie pilot for an X-Men TV show in the 90s that never took off. Fox didn’t care about it at the time. Disney certainly doesn’t care about it now. It’s available here on Youtube for free, but only because some Disney intern was too lazy to upload it to Content ID.

It’s trapped in crappy VHS quality forever, but it’s also in a very precarious place. And so is countless other media from the 80s and 90s, trapped in an era before digital but never brought to the present. Groups like Orphan Fansubs do extremely admirable work, but they’re a volunteer team working outside the law. The work they do is lauded and acclaimed in tiny niches, but if it gets too popular, someone will shut it down.

Without a public domain acceleration plan, things will be lost

It’s inevitable. Art disappears. The internet, even, isn’t our ultimate savior.

We’ve been seeing this in so many areas already. Almost all silent films are currently lost. The Lost Media Wiki details hundreds or even thousands of long-missing TV shows and specials from the era before home video. Obscure vinyls from Black-operated record labels have disappeared to time.

And the digital age is going to bring even more of that. We just AREN’T ready for this. Most video games are totally unpreserved in any legal format. The oldest CDs are starting to go bad. Digital rot will slowly corrupt our hard drives. The BBC’s Domesday Project was nearly lost forever due to something as simple as archaic file formats.

These are some serious problems we need to address BEFORE it starts getting extreme. Not after we’ve already lost a lot of it.

How do we fix these public domain problems?

Well, copyright reform sure is a real one. As a great Tom Scott video details, changing the system radically is the only real way to make sure art can be preserved in time.

However, nobody in their right mind thinks the U.S. government of all institutions is going to take bold, radical action on copyright systems. When’s the last time Congress did something remotely like that? Even if I personally think copyright terms should last a flat 30 years, no renewals or anything fancy, there is no way the government is changing from its 70+life system. Most of the world already adopted it, and large media conglomerates would make far too much of a fuss about any changes.

So we can only rely on the systems already in place. Well… libraries are a really good one. Libraries are an invaluable resource of preserving old art for public access even when copyright holders don’t care, and they’re in their legal rights to do it, too. The Internet Archive is essentially the library of the digital age, too, and it keeps websites and applications and all sorts of documents safe for generations–

Oh, you’re saying libraries are losing their funding and risking going under because of culture wars?

Oh, the Internet Archive is currently in a big lawsuit that could potentially take the whole thing down if it fails badly enough?

OK, so there’s some giant challenges to preserving copyrighted art, and changing the copyright system is next to impossible. Then, we need to sidestep it with the only bold measure the federal government could take without direct congressional action–a costly expensive arts program.

My public domain acceleration plan

public domain acceleration plan - king kong

My public domain acceleration plan is like what Zazlav did to screw over his company, but good this time.

So we have countless companies with out of print media in their backlogs gathering dust. We have the impending slow destruction of mass amounts of media that have never been properly preserved.

Why not just have the government literally pay people, then?

My public domain acceleration plan is the most simple idea of them all: The U.S. government should create a program to pay people to release their work into the public domain. That’s it.

The execution gets a little tricky, but the idea is totally solid. Create a program, give it a fund of, I don’t know, $3 billion dollars or some ridiculously high number, and start recruiting. Corporations, artists, authors, anyone with a piece of mildly notable art can apply to the program, release their work into the public domain, and the U.S. will pay them some arbitrary amount.

The first campaign

Here’s my idea of the execution, anyway.

A one-time deal that runs for 2-3 years. No takebacks, no negotiations (usually).

Obviously, ALL art is going to attract a bunch of Amazon ebook passive income grifters looking for a quick buck, so let’s cut this off at “published media” and media from 1999 or earlier–just for this first campaign.

Submit an original copy or records of a book’s original print run, and release it into the public domain, and they’ll give you a flat fee of $1000. Provide records that it reached bestseller status in a recognized sales list, and it’ll get bumped up to $100,000. If it won some notable award, get that all the way to $1,000,000.

Music rights are really confusing so we won’t go into that for now.

A comic series would pay $100 per issue with a $100,000 bonus for a series that lasted beyond 60 issues or some other arbitrary number. A TV series would be the same, but scaled up to $1000 per episode and a $1,000,000 bonus for any show that reached syndication.

$10 million for any Oscar-winning film, just throw out the big guns right there.

And for video games or computer software, make it $1000 for anything with a documented print run, and an extra $100,000 for the source code and other supplementary assets, and an extra $1,000,000 for anything reviewed in a recognized magazine. Just straight up give people the money and release their art to the world.

We don’t even have to stop there. Daily newspapers and weekly magazines? Promotional art and commercials? Historical stock photos? Flat fee $10 each, with some bonuses for larger and larger lump sum public domain releases.

Basically, everything follows along those lines for simplicity’s sake. The hungrier the government is and the bigger the budget, the more they can offer, but it’s just based on whatever they think will get the most applicants.

Royalties will get in the way of a lot of this–the rights holder will need to pay out this public domain release as if it were a sale. A publisher with copyright over a comic still gotta pay its writer and artist, even if it’s cutting them a piece of a tiny $100 pie.

And that’s it. The program gets absolutely swamped with applications, it runs an extra couple years past schedule to process it all and pay it out, and a bunch of artists and corporations get a bunch of money. A one-time huge deal event.

What do you think about my public domain acceleration plan?

It has bad optics from some points of view. For the most part, only large corporations are going to get any real sum of money from all this. Sure, an elderly sci-fi author with 18 middling books from the 70s could get a cool $18,000 to fund a vacation. But most of those billions are going to the big conglomerates, the ones who created this problem by sitting on mountains of art for a century.

But that’s the deal we have to make.

Companies facing liquidity issues would LOVE to go through their backlog and prune the unnecessary stuff, the stuff that absolutely won’t make more than the amount the U.S. government is offering right now, but also the stuff that may or may not make more someday, but it’s too much of a bother or too much of a risk. If you’re Warner Bros Discovery and you have forty-four billion dollars in debt, earning a few hundred million by public domaining the least lucrative parts of your back catalog puts a real nice dent with not much work.

Problems with rights issues prevent the re-releases of stuff like, certain old TV shows with licensed music, or old licensed video games. But when there’s some actual cold hard cash up for the taking? You’d better believe some of these companies will negotiate and work something out. Maybe not for Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, but maybe for something like I Go Pogo!

The biggest hurdle, as always, is the bureaucracy involved in actually implementing a plan like this, and the immense paperwork involved. And all the inevitable fraud–there’ll definitely be plenty of work that gets public domain’d, then five years later they audit and find out the wrong person submitted it–it’ll be a bit of a pain.

But extremely, incredibly worth it.

What are the benefits of a public domain acceleration plan?

The scope of art in the world will expand dramatically.

The twentieth century, fading away from the public consciousness, a lot of it disappearing entirely, will come roaring back like the MGM logo. A whole swath of forgotten classics will come back to the forefront.

And artists today can do whatever they want with it. Just like this new advent of stories based on Sherlock Holmes, or Wizard of Oz, or Great Gatsby, so too can we get a resurgence of media based on long-forgotten once-popular work, or rediscover under-the-radar work that never got its due, and we can remix it or remake it or place it in brand new contexts.

A program like this will never get the biggest gets. Citizen Kane will have to wait for the 2030s to enter public domain. Most of Looney Tunes will remain copyrighted for ages. Anything where the copyright owners see a legitimate long-term financial outlook, they’ll be keen to hold onto it.

So, kinda, we’d be getting the c-tier work of the twentieth century. A few b-tier works if we’re lucky. But for preservation, both literal and in a pop cultural consciousness sense, that’s exactly the point! Free access will ensure that people in 2400 can still enjoy all this work; the popular stuff already had that assured to begin with, so we don’t have to worry about that.

For example, the Blondie movies are extremely obscure today, but it’s one of the longest-running film series of all-time, somehow. I doubt they make enough money on Tubi to even justify keeping them on there over just taking a few million dollars and letting the whole world experience the Blondie.

Plus, it’s not like Tubi will STOP streaming Blondie for ad money. You’ll just also be able to watch the movies on Youtube, or Wikipedia, or on a shady DVD you got off the dollar rack at the convenience store.


public domain acceleration plan - steamboat willie

This public domain acceleration plan is nowhere remotely near a comprehensive, major way to fix our systemic problems with copyright. But it’s a major step, and a symbolic step.

Letting the world know, “Please, 90+ years of copyright is destroying the past, sometimes literally but also sometimes literally in a metaphorical way,” is hard to do when everyone is so laser focused on the present. But when you do it with dollar signs and a bloated government program, the whole world will take notice.

And then, five or ten years later, when the world sees just how much the program benefitted the public good, maybe then we can actually get to reforming the system that caused all this mess.

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