Public Domain: how does a work fall fit into it ? why am I interested in this question ?

The public domain is a treasure, it is the repository of artistic, literary, musical and pictorial works. It is thanks to this extraordinary reservoir that I can enrich my collages. 
At the beginning of my practice I worked a lot from very old works such as those of Petrus Christus, Lucas Cranach the Elder or other artists of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. This made me feel sure that I would not "dispossess" anyone. 
For about a year now, I have had the desire to create from the works of Félix Vallotton, a painter, illustrator and engraver whom I sincerely adore. 

Cover of my new category of tableaux collages : Art Collection  - created from one of his beautiful sunsets ↓

essai art min

But did I have the right to do so ? So that is how I decided to expand my basic knowledge of the public domain.
Here I will talk mainly about what interests me as a collagist, namely : how do painters' works rise in the public domain ? Indeed, the rights concerning music are even more complex. 

A little semantic precision : in everyday language we often hear that a work has fallen into the public domain. I confess that I do not like this expression, unless it refers to Quebec where people fall in love, it seems to implicitly mean a decline. I am not the only one who sees it that way.

Quotation from the text of SavoirsCom1 :

"The public domain is not a residue that would settle when everything of value has been seized by intellectual property laws. The public domain is the quarry from which we extract the stones with which we build our culture. In fact, it constitutes the majority of our culture." 
(James Boyle, The Public Domain, p.40f, 2008).

SavoirsCom1 even talks about rising in the public domain, I particularly like this vision and I share it.

Elevation in the public domain is in fact linked to duration and so-called economic rights

Article L 123-1: The author shall enjoy, throughout his life, the exclusive right to exploit his work in any form whatsoever and to obtain a pecuniary profit therefrom. Upon the death of the author, this right shall continue to be enjoyed by his successors during the current calendar year and the following seventy years.

Economic rights are therefore the transmission of this copyright to the descendants or beneficiaries of the artist. The law establishes the principle that, as long as a work is covered by property law, its use requires the author's consent. Throughout his life, the author, then his successors in title for 70 years after his death, may demand remuneration in return for the authorization to use the work.
In France, the works of an artist are therefore in the public domain 70 after the death of their author. However, there is one exception that extends the duration of economic rights by 30 years: it is the special status of authors "dead for France". This is the case of Guillaume Appolinaire who died for France in 1918 and who is normally (the calculation seems more complicated than what I describe) in the public domain on 1th January 2019.


Entry into the public domain also depends on the author's country of residence

 Each country has different laws. This can create confusion for the use of works, especially in this day and age when access to works from all countries is via the Internet and the information relating to them is not always accurate. It is important to always check; although official sources are unfortunately not always easily accessible, they are generally well relayed by serious cultural groups or associations.

There are some international agreements that attempt to reduce disparities between different copyright laws and facilitate the use of public domain works around the world. The first international agreement of this type was signed in Berne in 1886 ; Victor Hugo participated in the drafting of this convention, which was signed by more than 160 countries. Each member state of the Berne Convention must grant works the same protection as it grants to works born in its country. Importantly, according to the convention, the protection of works is automatic from the moment they are created.


It would be wonderful to have access to a real "public domain catalogue".

Unfortunately, I didn't find any despite my many searches. However, it is worth noting the brilliant advent calendar in the public domain that appears every year on the SavoirsCom1 website (again, yes, they are a mine of knowledge !) since 2013 and which announces the rise of 31 authors in the public domain on January 1.

I regularly visit the Web Gallery of Art, where I very often find my happiness in choice for my works. 

May 28, 2019


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