Public Domain Day 2012 (Paris)

Following the trend established by the Communia Thematic Network, we celebrated Public Domain Day in Paris on the 26th of January with an event organised by the Communia Association, Wikimedia France, Creative Commons France, the CNRS Institute for Communication Sciences and the Open Knowledge Foundation.

What unites all these organisations is that they share the common goal of encouraging the dissemination of knowledge and information, including – but not limited to – works that are in the public domain.

After an introduction by Adrienne Alix (Wikimedia France) and Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay (ISCC/Communia), the event started with a screening of Georges Méliès’ science fiction movie “A Trip to the Moon” from 1902. This was followed by a presentation of works that entered the public domain on January 1st 2012. A list was created by sorting the entries of Wikipedia according to the authors’ deaths and is available at the following address. The list includes famous French authors such as Maurice Leblanc (Arsene Lupin), as well as the painter Robert Delaunay. It also includes internationally renowned authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, to name a few.

After the initial celebration, Lionel Maurel (Bibliothèque Nationale de France) and Primavera De Filippi (Open Knowledge Foundation) went on to illustrate the role of open bibliographic metadata in its relation with the public domain. While accurate and precise metadata is necessary for the purpose of identifying works that have fallen in the public domain, it is often difficult for libraries and other cultural institutions to provide all necessary information to properly determine the legal status of a work. This also was the occasion to present the Public Domain Calculators of the OKF and the challenges that must be addressed as a result of the complexities of French copyright law.

This intervention was followed by a round table between Philippe Aigrain (La Quadrature du Net), Rémi Mathis (Wikimedia France), Jérémie Zimmermann (La Quadrature du Net), Tangui Morlier (Regards Citoyens) and Lionel Maurel (Bibliothèque Nationale de France), accompanied in the background by a series of silent movies from the Lumière brothers.

Rémi Mathis started to discuss the fonction assumed by the public domain in the dissemination of culture and information, focusing on the various projects of Wikimedia. He began by explaining the concept of the public domain and the advantages it might bring to society, to subsequently present a number of initiatives, such as Wikicommons and Wikisource, which are strongly related to the public domain. There are however still several challenges to be addressed before one can rely upon the public domain in order to create a common cultural heritage at the national and international level.

Philippe Aigrain went on by explaining the relationship that subsists between the public domain and the common good, a relationship that is difficult to establish because of the poorly defined concept of the public domain. challenges faced by the public domain as a common good and its impact on society. From an historical perspective, Philippe Aigrain draws a distinction between “res nullius” (what does not belong to anyone) and “res communis” (what belongs to the community), and argues that the copyright system should shift from a situation where anything that is not in the public domain cannot be freely reused to a situation where anything can be freely reused unless it has been specifically provided otherwise.

It was then the turn of Jérémie Zimmermann, whose speech starts with an important question: “Does society need to change according to the rules of law, or is it the law that must change to better comply with society?” Jérémie presented the dangers threatening the public domain, as a result of the constant expansion of intellectual property laws, the introduction of sui-generis rights on formerly non-protected materials, and the growing imposition of contractual restrictions on the legitimate use of a protected work. He contended, however, that the most fundamental thing to preserve is the free Internet, intended as a network that is not affected by governemental control or corporate censorship. Given the recent issues at stake, Jeremie concluded his talk with a series of warning concerning the biggest threats to the free Internet, known under the acronyms of ACTA, SOPA, PIPA, URAA and so forth.

Tangui Morlier went on to present the activities of Regards Citoyens and how their activities are affected by similar issues to those affecting the public domain. As data are not subject to the french copyright but to a sui-generis right on facts and information, public domain means, for the Open Data community, more “res nullius” than “res communis”. To make government data part of the Commons as Regards Citoyens would wish, new legal tools are needed such as a real Freedom of Information Act and a public list of all public government data made accessible to private entities. Unless these tools are built, it is currently necessary to consider what is the most effective contractual tool. The answer is obviously to encourage the use of free/libre licences (such as the ODBL, CC-Zero or the « Licence Ouverte » in France) in order to allow anyone to freely use and re-use public and governmental data.

Finally, Lionel Maurel closed the discussion with an important observation. The fundamental problem of the public domain is that it does not exist, given that in France, at least, it can only be defined as a negation of rights. In this respect, he referred to the Public Domain Manifesto of the Communia network which constitutes a preliminary attempt to define the public domain from a more positive stanpoint.

The event ended with a series of informal discussions around a cocktail in order to celebrate the public domain and the success of the public domain day.

Cropped version of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man
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