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The Great Gatsby: Copyright 1925

The public domain matters, damn it.

EFF: Why Isn’t Gatsby in the Public Domain? raises some good points about the dire need for copyright reform. I’m just going to throw some other ideas out here.

A growing public domain could have changed the 20th century. Small publishers could have subsidized the publication of works that did not meet the demand of the large publishers. That is, by publishing old, popular works, many new works could have been published.

One of the key things we must think about with copyright: why do we pay at all for any creative work? One reason is to support the artists and thinkers. Another is to avoid lawsuits, I suppose. But is not one of the reasons for us to pay for these works the expectation that we will one day have them in the public domain? We lose part of our payment to the wind, as it were. We see part of our payment be in vain.

Another thing to consider, what happens to the copyright of a work if everyone owned a copy? Would it be enforceable to take someone to court for giving a copy to someone that already had one? Or if there were no copy of a work, other than inside someone’s head (eg, The Book of Eli), could that person be held liable for making a copy where no tangible copy existed?

As for The Great Gatsby I find it inappropriate to consider that work to be copyrighted. With works like it, we certainly move toward a place where we as society should simply ignore the law. Take the opening of the book:


One advantage that Fitzgerald had in his life, which has dissipated since, was a bountiful public domain. How many works have been lost due to the lack of the inspiration and free-flow of information that the public domain should offer? How much drier would Wikipedia be without the public domain?

Should we continue to play the role of Gatsby, trying to our death to win the affection of the money-filled voices of the owners of fine art? That is the path we are on today.

How many pieces of art do you engage with per day? The music you listen to, the clothing you wear, the screens and frames in your life, movies, television, theater, all around you art is pervasive.

But what if the leaves never fell in the fall? How quickly these great trees would splinter and thrash to dust under their own weight.

The lack of a public domain is the societal equivalent to wearing earplugs and nose plugs and a coating of plastic on our tongues. Thick gloves and cataracts.

We deprive ourselves of the discoveries and connectedness, the intertext. How would religion be impacted if all of the variations of the various holy books survived intact? Would we find a version of the myths that contained humorous incidents long forgotten?

The minimal money being made off such old works pales the amounts to be made if the rest of the works enter the public domain before they are lost for good. We live in an world of information, our economies rely on it, and yet we do not embrace its spread, ever fearful of losing control.

We must stop being Jay Gatsby, or we will be floating before we know what hit us.

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