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On the Public Domain: The Value of Free Art

Yesterday I told you about my impossible dream of someday seeing a version of Twilight with vampires in it. And I said all that in the context of a conversation about the public domain.

So what is the public domain? Well, remember way back when we talked about the cost of making money off copyright? I said that, essentially, all copyright really does is give you the luxury of taking your fans to court.

Well…essentially, the public domain is the opposite. A work of art that’s “in the public domain” is free to be infringed-upon by any and all, and nobody gets to sue anyone over it.

Finding Value in Free Art

Does that sound a little crazy? It’s actually how most of human art has been produced.

You see, copyright is a relatively new concept. It started some 300 years ago. Before then, we didn’t have the beneficence of a government-enforced monopoly encouraging artists to pursue mastery and fame. Instead, we had to settle for the work of petty amateurs like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, John Milton, and Shakespeare.

Artists regularly study each other’s methods, and practice them — recreating styles, effects, characters, even whole scenes. Historically, that’s how new artists learn the fundamentals of their craft.

And it’s quite normal for new fantasy writers to make up stories that are either King Arthur, Robin Hood, or Lord of the Rings. We laugh about it sometimes, poking fun at the more egregious cases like Eragon, but it’s actually a pretty valuable learning experience all around.

Of course, if your story is just a scene-for-scene retelling of a copyrighted work, you’re going to get sued. And if it’s a retelling of one of those public domain works, you won’t be able to sue anybody else. So is a project like that even worth pursuing?

“Free Speech” vs. “Free Beer”

It depends on your goals. If you just want to make a fortune off selling rights (or suing pirates), then the more original your story is, the better.

I don’t know many artists who work that way, though. I know a lot more who’d dive wholeheartedly into a public domain project like that if they had a great idea, resigned to the reality they’ll never make a dime off that work.

There’s no real reason to believe that, though. In fact, there’s a lot of confusion out there about how free art works.

Luckily, the people who’ve been promoting free software for the last couple decades have come up with some great ideas on the topic. One of the things they like to point out is that there’s a difference between “free speech” and “free beer.”

Art in the public domain is free of cumbersome legal restrictions (and, with them, the burdens they place on the creators). That doesn’t mean the creator has to give it away for free, though.

If you walk into a Barnes and Noble looking for A Tale of Two Cities, you’d better expect to pay for it on your way out. That’s a public domain book, and your local bookseller is happy to provide it for the low, low price of $9.99 (same as you’d pay for last year’s Dan Brown paperback sitting on the shelf next to it, which might still be under copyright when your great grandchildren are browsing for something to read during a shuttle ride to Starport Jove).

How to Use Free Art in Your Writing

So where does that leave you, as a writer? It leaves you with a wrenching moral dilemma, is where, but I’m not going to bring that up for a couple weeks yet. I’d prefer to let you enjoy your innocent bliss for a little while longer.

It also leaves you in a place of power, though. Copyright has convinced so many of us that any kind of copying is wrong, and so the bulk of today’s artists are trying to do it with one hand tied behind their backs.

Borrowing technique and style from other artists is how art is done, and there is a tremendous amount of art ready to be borrowed from. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll talk a bit about how to use free art in your writing.

2 Responses to “On the Public Domain: The Value of Free Art”

  1. Bryce says:

    I have been intrigued by your recent posts concerning copyright. You have cited Michelangelo and others as examples of artists who lived free of copyright, but they were commissioned and (poorly) supported by the Medici family or by the Pope, et al. Who will be your Medici?

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      That’s a terribly apt question, Bryce, and the terribly disappointing answer is “read and find out.” Next week I’m doing a series looking at how patronage and mastery worked in the Renaissance, and then I’m ending the month with my brilliant business plan (read “daydream”).

      I don’t like to disappoint, though, so I’ll say a few words more.

      Essentially, my benefactor is the public. At the risk of skirting sacrilege, my Pope is the steady stream of pilgrims, paying their petty tithes. My Medici is the mess of unwashed masses, crowding into the cheap seats to get an afternoon’s entertainment for two shaved pennies.

      We’re cutting out the monastic middle-man and the Medici mediator — or, rather, replacing them with an intermediary that skims a much smaller portion off the top. Which is to say, of course, “the internet.”

      In the end, the money comes from the same place it’s always come from: a purchasing public willingly (gladly) paying for the experience, because they want access to a world made richer by real art.