Know Your © 

Text by Michelle Vorce
Illustration by John Tenniel

Artists and designers of the 21st century are constantly confronted with emerging issues around authorship and ownership of publicized works. Our world is evolving through collaborative systems in which ideas are shared faster than ever, and the tools for creation are more accessible than they have ever been. This refers to the availability of images, sourcing inspiration, online domains that string webs of information, and ways media is ultimately repurposed in multifaceted contexts. Is everything we think up ultimately recycled from the public stratosphere somehow? 

Copyrights outline the boundaries that protect the rights of creators and the rights of the public. Innovation, creativity, and people often flourish at the edges of what has already been created and what has yet to be contributed to our world. Often times, it is these emergent creations that spur revisions to copyright laws that outgrow relevance. In 1976 President Ford signed the first major revision to copyright law since 1909 to address advancements in technology that changed how works might be copied, and extended the terms of copyrights 50 years beyond the author’s death. In its current iteration, the law extends the term 70 years from the author’s death until a work enters the public domain—wherein it is free to use, share, or adapt and is owned by the general public. 

At the time of Ford’s 1976 signing, Time Magazine noted, “So old was the last law (1909) that if it could have been copyrighted, the copyright would have been due to expire,” before quoting Mark Twain: “Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.”

Did You Know?

  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in its totality – Lewis Carrol's text and John Tenniel's illustrations – is in the public domain.
  • January 1st is Public Domain Day.
  • In 1790, the first copyright act passed, protecting only maps, charts, and books.
  • To be entitled for copyright protection, a work must owe its origin to a human being.
  • Certain symbols, designs, and typefaces are not copyrightable: among them, the fleur-de-lis, the cross, and common geometric shapes.
  • The four common ways work arrives in the public domain:
    • Expiration of a term.
    • Failure to renew.
    • The owner dedicates it to the domain.
    • The property was not copyrightable to begin with.