The Public Domain

January 08, 2019

For the first time in 21 years, a substantial amount of new works will enter the public domain in the United States allowing everyone to copy, translate, and remix significant cultural works without fear of copyright infringement.

Copyright protection does not last forever, and all copyright laws around the world provide that the copying restrictions that copyright law grants expire after specific number of years on the death of the author or the publication of the work in question. In the United States, the entertainment industry had successfully lobbied United States legislators in previous decades to repeatedly extend this term of protection so that commercially valuable works, such as Mickey Mouse, do not enter the public domain.

However, due to the growing interest in public domain works, and pressure from technology companies, such as Google, who greatly benefit from public domain works, the entertainment industry was not in a position to lobby for another extension. As a result, and for the first time in over two decades, copyright law has been allowed to expire in the United States making books, artwork, music, and movies published in 1923 available to copy and use freely and without the need to seek anyone’s permission.

The availability of new public domain works is only important for consumers of cultural works who can now read, watch, and download them free of charge, but the public domain is also extremely fundamental for creators of cultural works since it provides them with a substantially wider pool of building blocks that can be used to create new works.

The public domain was frozen in the United States from the year 1998 onwards as a result of a piece of American legislation that extended the copyright term for 20 years. Unfortunately, and even though works that have entered the public domain in the United States this year are already in the public domain in Oman, the public domain in Oman has also been put on hold for almost a decade now as a result of the extension of the copyright term in Oman that was mandated by our free trade agreement with the United States.

Omanis will have to wait for another decade before new works enter the public domain in Oman because we extended the copyright term by 20 years when we issued our new copyright law in the year 2008. This makes the size of the public domain much smaller here in comparison to Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi, and the UAE.

The fact that works take 20 additional years to enter the public domain in comparison to our neighbours means that a work can be downloaded, distributed in schools, and translated into Arabic free of charge in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi, and the UAE for years before the same act becomes legal in Oman. This is unreasonable and makes Oman a much less attractive place for education, translation, art, and other similar industries.

It is important for a country to have copyright protection in order to provide an incentive for authors to create and to ensure that publishers and producers of cultural works manage to protect their investment in culture, however, this protection should not be excessive and must not hinder the ability of new authors to create new works.