The Public Domain

by Michael Camilleri

A while back, I amended the footer of this site to make clear that I was putting all original work I produce on this blog into the public domain. I disclaimed all intellectual property rights I may have, either copyright or otherwise. I’ve been meaning to write about this decision for so long that I can’t remember how far back it was. It was a while.

Anyway, let’s begin with a refresher:

Works are in the public domain if the intellectual property rights have expired, if the intellectual property rights are forfeited, or if they are not covered or protected by intellectual property laws.

(Source: Wikipedia.)

So putting my work into the public domain1 is an attempt to disclaim any and all intellectual property rights that I may have to the work I’m producing here.

Why would I do this? The truth is that I’m uncomfortable with the concept of intellectual property. This might seem like an odd thing to say for someone that was a lawyer and worked, from time to time, on issues involving intellectual property. But, if you know many lawyers, you’ll realise that it is completely natural for us to be internally conflicted about the things that we do. That’s why we charge such high fees (helps soothe the pain).

And if I’m uncomfortable with intellectual property generally, I am incredibly uncomfortable with copyright. I feel this way for three reasons.

First, copyright lasts a very long time. One might even say an inordinate amount of time.2 While it’s true that trade mark rights can last forever, they do so only through continual use. If you create a trade mark, and then just don’t use it for 10 years or so, your claims to it go away (or get progressively weaker). From the moment copyright subsists in a work, it just sits there subsisting for the rest of your life and then for 50 to 100 years after that.

To put that in context, I am 29 years old as I write this. At the moment, the average life expectancy for a person in my situation is about 82 years. Assuming I make it to that point, then if I didn’t disclaim my copyright in this blog post, in some jurisdictions it would not enter the public domain until 2165. That’s not a typo. That’s the second half of the 22nd century.

Second, it feels arrogant. There’s something to be said for the argument that our societies are producing generations of people who feel that they are incredibly important (see: rise of reality television).

This is garbage. Importance is something you earn, not something with which you’re endowed. If Milan Kundera, or Judi Dench or Bj√∂rk want to assert copyright in their work, well, they’ve at least earned it. Some guy with a WordPress blog who thinks he knows how Microsoft should turn around their business has not.

I mean what am I worried about? That some dude in China is going to start mirroring my blog? Put all these posts in a book and sell them? I wish my writing were that good.

Third (and perhaps most importantly), the divide between copyright law and people’s expectations on copyright is so vast that I believe it’s corrosive to the legal system as a whole. This is rather a large claim to make and, instead of substantiating it, allow me to instead turn to the inimitable Lawrence Lessig and his TED talk from a few years back. As evidence for the disconnect (in case any was needed) see also Andy Baio’s great post from the end of last year about the way ‘the youth’ view copyright infringement.

I don’t disagree with those that seek to change the law but, and maybe this is the lawyer talking, I am uncomfortable about the idea of doing it through some critical mass of law breaking. Civil disobedience is well and good but posting music videos to YouTube isn’t sitting at the front of the bus.

So rather than have you potentially break the law, be even more arrogant than I already am and be a hypocrite for asserting a law I don’t believe in, I’m just going to sidestep it entirely. Here’s my stuff. It’s in the public domain. You want to use it, go nuts.

  1. I am going to sidestep the question of whether one can actually put works into the public domain. This is particularly the case when the act is done in a single sentence in the footer of a website. To do it properly I should probably put it in a 2-page deed. I leave this as an exercise for the reader. 

  2. One might particularly say this after one has looked up the meaning to ensure that one is using the word correctly.