New Year’s Day: Happy 2010 and Happy Public Domain Day!
January First each year is the day that the archives are opened and one more year’s cultural content loses copyright restriction and returns to Public Domain (PD). For most countries the copyright term currently stands at the ludicrously long 50 or even 70 years after the death of the creator. Despite this lag and to celebrate the new releases, I’d like to tell you a story I heard at the “Unlocking IP” conference and re-told in my “thanks to the presenters” speech at GLAM-WIKI.
A classic piece of Australian literature is the 1918 story of “The Magic Pudding” by the renowned artist and writer Norman Lindsay.
The Magic Pudding: Being The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff is an Australian children’s book written and illustrated by Norman Lindsay. It is a comic fantasy, a classic of Australian children’s literature. The story is set in Australia with humans mixing with anthropomorphic animals. It tells of a magic pudding which, no matter how often it is eaten, always reforms in order to be eaten again. It is owned by three companions who must defend it against Pudding Thieves who want it for themselves. The book is divided into four “slices” instead of chapters. There are many short songs interspersed throughout the text, varying from stories told in rhyme to descriptions of a characters’ mood or behaviour and verses of an ongoing sea song.
First published in 1918, The Magic Pudding is considered to be a children’s classic, and continues to be reprinted. A new edition was released in 2008 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the book, and October 12th was declared “Pudding Day”. The new edition features the original artwork as well as a biography, the first book reviews, letters between the Lindsay and publisher, and various recipes. The Magic Pudding is said to have been written to settle an argument: a friend of Lindsay’s said that children like to read about fairies, while Lindsay asserted that they like to read about food.
Adapted from the Wikipedia article “The Magic Pudding” version number 332295723
Not only is this story both beautiful and hilarious it is also a fantastic analogy for the Public Domain in at least three ways:
• Just as culture becomes richer the more it is used and re-used, Albert “the cut an’ come-again puddin’ ” likes nothing better than to be eaten because the more he is eaten, the more he re-grows. This is the plot device around which the whole story turns and a fact of culture around which our society revolves. If we had to invent everything anew we would be living, as Goethe said, “from hand to mouth”. Culture gets better, richer and deeper the more it is passed around and shared. If it didn’t, what kind of society would we have? If Albert didn’t regrow, what would be the point of Lindsay’s story?
• Even though the Public Domain is hard to own, confine and control, people are alway trying to do precisely that. Similarly, although Albert persists in trying to run away, his current owners are always trying to stop others from having him. The book recounts the story of how Bunyip Bluegum, the Koala, Bill Barnacle the Sailor, and Sam Sawnoff the penguin, (who call themselves the “Noble Society of Pudding Owners”) fight for control of the puddin’ against “The Pudding Thieves” Possum and Wombat. More and more nefarious tactics are used to try and regain sole control over Albert despite the fact that there is – by definition – always enough pudding to go around. The characters are not satisfied with an unlimited supply of pudding, they want to control others’ use of it too. It is the same with much of PD culture…
• To put it mildly, Albert is cantankerous. He may give himself freely, but he takes back in the form of irritability. I don’t know about your impression, but one of the defining features I see of the Wikimedian community (and I count myself among them) is their cantankerousness. We may give all of our intellectual output away freely in the form of Wikipedia – “the cut an’ come-again ‘pedia” – but there has never been an action that we’ve taken that wasn’t vigorously debated and called “controversial” by someone. Seriously – I challenge anyone to think of anything in Wikimedia that received unanimous approval from the community.
Ironically though, the Magic Pudding story and all of its gorgeous illustrations will remain all-rights-reserved until 2039 because that will be the 70th anniversary of Norman Lindsay’s death in 1969.
 I recently had a debate with Prof. Graham Greenleaf, whom I must credit with the marvellous analogy that is the subject of this post, about what the best verb is to describe this changeover. The common phrase is “falls” into PD but this implies a loss of status – some sort of descent. Obviously as a proponent of free-culture I don’t want to imply this. Perhaps “ascends” to PD is more laudatory but it is an equally loud value-judgement. My personal favourite is “returns” to PD as this is based on an originalist approach to copyright. Copyright was originally invented as a restriction placed upon cultural content, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. PD was the norm, copyright was the exception. These days the common understanding is the reverse (that in-copyright is/should be the norm and PD is somehow an aberration). So, “Returns to PD” is a linguistic decision to imply that we are back to the natural, original, correct state.
 Here in Australia, through a quirk of history, we also have PD for photographs up until 1955 irrespective of the year of the death of the author – a good thing™. However this does not apply to other art forms such as literature or illustration.
 I’d like to thank Anne Howard and the Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum at Faulconbridge, operated by the National Trust of Australia (NSW branch), for the thank you gifts at GLAM-WIKI. All Wikimedia Australia helpers at the event received a Magic Pudding coffee mug and our international guests Jennifer Riggs and Mathias Schindler each received an illustrated copy of the book – all generously provided by the National Trust. You can order these gifts online or visit the house and the gallery if you happen to be in the beautiful Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
 As a result, and against my custom, the illustrations from the book that I’ve placed in this blogpost remain in-copyright. Oddly, the full text of the book can be downloaded from Project Gutenburg here as they claim it is not copyrighted under USA law. I claim that the use of the illustrations here is “fair dealing” under section 41 (criticism or review) or perhaps even 41a (parody or satire) of the 1968 Australian Copyright Act. If you don’t like that justification then in the words of Apple Inc. – “Sosumi“.