The Public Domain Manifesto

Melanie Dulong writes that the concept of the Public Domain needs a re-awakening, framing it as not at odds with copyright, but setting it out as a manifesto behind the actions of Communia.

Image: Marrakech Museum – Museo, Morocco CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: marcp_demoz

The Public Domain is the wealth of information that is free from the barriers usually associated with copyright protection. It is the raw material from which new knowledge is derived and new cultural works are created.

This definition is extracted from the Public Domain Manifesto, an output of Communia, a policy network developing and supporting a positive agenda for the Public Domain. In the context of copyright extension, this community of academics, activists and practitioners in business and non-profits want to protect the right to access and reuse culture, education, science and public information. The role of the Public Domain, already crucial in the past, is even more important today, as the Internet and digital technologies enable us to access, use and re-distribute information with no marginal cost.

As states above, The Public Domain Manifesto defines the Public Domain as the sum of knowledge and material which is free from copyright barriers and which can be used without restriction. Therefore, the Manifesto's definition encounters works which are no longer covered by copyright and the information, facts and data ideas which are outside of the scope of copyright protection. It also addresses works that are voluntarily shared by their rights holders, for instance through open licenses and the user’s rights created by exceptions and limitations to copyright: fair use in the US and fair dealing in the UK.

The Manifesto's definition is completed by policy recommendations aiming at protecting the Public Domain from legal and technical restrictions and strengthening it by bringing it back to the core of the creative process. Historically and conceptually indeed, Communia recalls that the Public Domain is the rule while copyright is the exception. Works that can be freely accessed and reused are the basis of the exercise of many fundamental human rights and values, such as the right to cultural expression and to education, freedom of expression, citizen democratic participation and economic and social innovation.

Based on the Manifesto’s recommendations, the Communia association has been issuing statements at the World Intellectual Property Association (WIPO), recommending further work on the public domain for voluntary dedication and the development of copyright registries. Members propose comments on recent legislative drafts. For example, Communia's policy paper on the proposal to amend the European Directive on re-use of Public Sector Information explains the suggested changes. The Communia paper asked for improvement on the conditions for re-use of public sector information which falls within the scope of the Directive, and calls for the inclusion of public domain content that is held by libraries, museums and archives, in order to allow the largest possible use of European heritage and public information.

Communia has been active as a European Thematic Network from 2007 until 2011 and then became an international association structuring its work around a set of 14 policy recommendations guiding its actions. For instance, in the field of cultural heritage, Communia advocates that the digital reproduction of public domain works must remain in the public domain. Museums should not include any contractual or technical limitations when making their collections available online. Publicly-funded digitization projects  must ensure that all digitized content is also publicly available online. Existing exceptions and limitations benefitting memory institutions need to be broadened to allow institutions to make available digital reproductions of those works that they hold in their collections, at least for non-commercial purposes.

The Final Report of the European Thematic Network provides a basis for action taken up by its successor, the Communia International Association, depicting a wide range of issues and proposing answers.

These thoughts are expanded on in the Communia collective book “The Digital Public Domain: Foundations for an Open Culture” which provides essays by academics, librarians, entrepreneurs, activists and policy makers illustrating the Manifesto through theoretical papers on copyright and concrete case studies of projects that have engaged with the principles of Open Access and Creative Commons licensing.

Proposals to dismantle restrictions to the Public Domain can also be applied to the issue of orphan works; those works which are locked because their right holders are unknown or cannot be located. The proposed orphan works directive has also been commented on by Communia members, based on the principles previously set up in the Manifesto, with a detailed comment on the proposal and blog posts commenting on the draft here and here. The orphan or hostage works problem and its treatment by EU and UK law have already been tackled on ORGZine in a previous article. However, the draft Directive focus should be widened beyond memory institutions: individuals and non-profit organizations such as Wikipedia provide a tremendous contribution to the preservation and access to cultural heritage.

Communia is opposed to legislative drafts and projects which threaten the Public Domain, and contribute to the definition of a positive agenda for copyright. After decades of measures, leading to more and more difficulties in using works, it is time to reform the copyright system towards more flexibility, for the shared benefit of all creators and members of the society. The purpose of Communia is to raise awareness on copyright systems current flaws and to propose possible paths for reform in order to enjoy the common wealth of culture and allow all to build upon it. The book aims at providing scholarship supporting these proposals, and at providing examples of successful implementation of these shared knowledge principles.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported license available at


Melanie Dulong de Rosnay is a researcher at the Institute for Communication Sciences of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (ISCC), Paris and the president of the Communia International Association for the Public Domain, Brussels. Her research currently focuses on comparative public policy for open access to scientific data and public domain works, and on the transformation of legal regulation introduced by distributed architectures.

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By Melanie Dulong de Rosnay on Aug 21, 2012

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