Artists steal. It’s a well-known fact. Blues musicians built upon the tradition of other blues musicians playing on the same circuit, and rock musicians built upon their music in turn, sometimes appropriating wholesale their songs and styles. Writers, it’s been said, choose from a limited number of plots and write the same story over and over, just tweaking the details. Nothing is entirely original, yet artists make original work out of the culture they’re immersed in.

“Ain’t nothing new under the sun,” says rapper Phonte of emerging Durham hip-hop group Little Brother. “Everything’s been done before. For the most part, in every art form, every innovation comes out of some form of imitation.”

But culture as we know it is increasingly bound up in the very laws that are supposed to nurture it. Copyright law has gone from promoting creativity to hindering artistic expression, thanks in part to the efforts of a few giant corporations that are sitting on billions of dollars worth of intellectual property.

“Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it,” wrote Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski in a recent copyright ruling. “Culture is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before. Overprotection stifles the very creative forces it’s supposed to nurture.”

As a result of recent copyright extensions, the public domainthe sounds, images, texts and other materials that are unprotected by intellectual property rights and free for all to use or build uponis a dwindling resource. And while certain uses of copyrighted work can still fall under the legal doctrine of Fair Use, most artists have no idea how to navigate the labyrinth of laws and judicial interpretations surrounding Fair Use.

Most artists don’t know what the risks are in using a sample from a song, a photo in a collage, or leaving a corporate logo in the background of a film. Nor do artists know how to say affirmatively, legally, that they want to contribute their work to the public domain, to put it out there free for others to access.

That’s why there’s a growing movement among academics, progressive legal types and techies to educate artists about what cultural material is freely available and how they can use it without getting sued.

Locking culture in the closet

Most discussions of copyright these days focus on college students getting sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for swapping music files on the Internet. But for aspiring musician Tain Collins, online music piracy is the least of his worries.

Collins makes a living playing songs. He knows more than 100 songs, many of them his original compositions. Sitting in his makeshift studio in the Carrboro house he shares with four other guys, he plays one of his tunes, a lyrical rock song with a good rhythm and thoughtful lyrics.

All he knows about copyright is that he wants to protect his work. “Basically, I’m just afraid of somebody stealing my songs,” he says. “It’s my living, so I want to make sure that I get credit for it and it makes money.” This is how most artists feel about the copyright issue: They want and expect it to work for them.

But Collins isn’t bothered about online file trading. “It’s just going to happen anyway. I think it’s fine.” He and his band have just finished recording an album of original songs in this very room. They’ll burn copies at home and sell them at their gigs. He doesn’t mind if people listen to his music for free. “If we’re at a show and we sell 10 CDs, and it’s going to be burned 10 other times, at least we sold that one. At the same time, there are 10 other people listening to that music that probably wouldn’t listen to it otherwise. That gets you more fans that will come to your next live show.”

But to make things more complicated, consider the fact that most Franklin Street bar gigs require the Tain Collins Band to play cover songs. “We play for like three hours, and I don’t have enough material to play all originals,” he says. Sure, audiences at a music club like the Local 506 or Cat’s Cradle expect original material. “But you don’t get paid for those gigs until you get some exposure.” Thus, an aspiring musician in most places is going to make money by playing songs that are familiar, to a crowd that’s gathered primarily to socialize and drink beer.

Besides, Collins says, “I like playing covers. It’s helped me figure out song structure and how to write a song.”

Like most musicians who play cover songs for small public crowds, Collins hasn’t cleared the rights. “I don’t know if we’re doing something wrong,” he says uneasily. “I don’t think an artist would get upset if you play their songs” as long as you acknowledge who wrote them. “It just gives more attention to the original artist.” Besides, he adds, it’s so widespread, how could it be illegal?

Should musicians like Collins be worried? Yes, says Duke Law Professor James Boyle. He cites one case where patrons at a neighborhood bar in New York City were told by an attorney to stop their beer-fueled sing-a-longs unless they were willing to pay a licensing fee to the songs’ copyright holders. But that’s not the only reason to be concerned, Boyle says. “Artists tend to come into this assuming that ‘My only interest is in having as much copyright protection as I can get.’ Which is great on the output side; what about the input side? Where do you get your raw materials?” In order to foster creativity, copyright law must strike a careful balance: It must allow artists to protect and profit from their work, while ensuring the availability of necessary building blocksa I-IV-V chord progression, a boy-meets-girl storyfor future creation. The artist’s perspective, Boyle says, is “What bits of this stuff can I use?”

Boyle is co-founder of Creative Commons, a digital non-profit organization that allows artists and creators to decide and specify the terms of copyright they’re most comfortable with. The project, based in San Francisco and supported by Durham’s Center for the Public Domain, has created legally binding licenses that can be read by machines, lawyers and regular people.

A short animated film on explains how it works. The licenses allow artists to offer their works with “no rights reserved,” or with varying degrees of “some rights reserved.” For instance, an artist could choose to require credit for their works, or to allow only non-commercial uses, or to allow copies but no derivative works, or any combination of these terms. In other words, you can lay down a bass track and offer it up for any other musician to use in their rock song, as long as they give you credit. Or, you can put your nature photography onlinewith a few pictures free for anyone to use for non-commercial purposes, and the rest available for any use at all.

The reason these licenses are necessary is that lawmakers have been so busy locking up material, they never thought about a way to make it free. “What the copyright office said when we [asked], ‘What’s the standard form for disclaiming copyright?’ They said, ‘We don’t provide that service’,” says Boyle. “This is totally bizarre, because the whole point of copyright is not that it’s only working when you’re locking things up. That’s like saying if you own anything, you can never give it away. So property has the right to, what, stay in your closet?”

Copyright and copywrong

How did creativity get this complicated? In 1976, Congress voted to change the very nature of copyright. It used to be that a creator had to put a copyright notice on a work, with the year of publication and the name of the copyright owner, in order for that work to be protected. Otherwise, it went immediately into the public domain. The term of that copyright lasted 28 years, and if the creator wanted further protection, he or she could renew the copyright for another 28-year period. The whole notion of copyright as written in the Constitution was designed to encourage new ideas and innovation in the fledgling American culture by allowing people to profit from their inventions for a limited time. In fact, intellectual property rights were the only kind of rights mentioned in the Constitution itself (as opposed to the Bill of Rights and other amendments, which came later). “The idea of copyright is it tries to produce this incredible decentralized system of creativity,” Boyle explains.

But back then, there were no corporate owners of intellectual property as we know them today. It took modern corporationsDisney being the most outspokento argue for copyright to be further extended in order to protect the very foundation of their businesses. The 1976 law extended copyright to cover the life of the author plus 50 years. That law and legislation in 1988 took the notice requirement out of the picture.

Today, you don’t have to put a copyright notice on something for it to be copyrighted. As soon as you create a work, whether it’s a novel or a photograph or a doodle on a napkin, it legally belongs to you. As a result, there is no way for someone who sees that doodle to know who owns the copyright to it. It’s up to the person who wants to use your creation to track you down, and up to you to sue them if they use it without permission.

Copyright still expires, in theory. But in 1998 the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act extended it further, to 70 years past the death of the author for individuals, 95 years for corporate authors, and granted another 20 years to all existing copyrights. All this, you see, is designed to protect the magic date of 1928, the year “Steamboat Willie,” the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, was created. “Now we’ve extended the copyright term so long, we’ve locked up all of 20th century culture,” says Boyle. “Every book, every movie, every poem, every song [will be protected] for nearly 100 years and sometimes even more than 100 years. Of those works, maybe five percent are being commercially exploited. So we’re locking up 100 percent to save maybe five percent. Economically, that doesn’t make sense. From the frost-on-the-heart-of-a-banker perspective, that doesn’t make sense.”

A Supreme Court case recently brought a challenge to this perpetual extension. In Eldred vs. Ashcroft, a man named Eric Eldred, whose Web site publishes public domain literature, and an antiquarian bookseller named Laura Bjorklund sued to get the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act declared unconstitutional. Their lead attorney, intellectual property superstar Lawrence Lessig, argued that copyright extensions harmed their businesses and took resources away from the public, contrary to the original intent of the Constitution.

Eldred lost, but public domain advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation are still hoping there will be a successful legal challenge that will force Congress to put realistic expirations on copyright. They believe that if all of 20th Century culture is roped off, it will have the opposite effect of what the Constitution intended, and a chilling effect on creators of new worksespecially in genres that are based on some form of collage or sampling.

Boyle makes it clear that groups like Creative Commons are not against the notion of copyright. “It isn’t either/orcopyright protection or the public domain,” he says. “It’s actually more an ecology. What’s happened, sadly, is that we’ve gotten out of balance. Traditionally you had this very thin layer of intellectual property wrapped around a very large public domain. Copyright didn’t cover very much, and it didn’t cover it for very long.”

Copyright law as it exists today often doesn’t serve the interests of artists and creators, he says; in many cases, it does a disservice to them.

This reality runs contrary to the arguments of corporations and lobbying groups who still seek further copyright extension. “When they go to Congress and say, ‘We need more time,’ it’s always, ‘Oh, it’s for the artists’ sake, the sacred artists.’ Then when you actually see how artists get treated, it turns out that their interests are not being as assiduously promoted.” In some cases, he says, “the artists, writers and musicians become sort of a stalking horse for the publishers and the music distributors.”

Culture is paying the price for these bad laws. In fact, the labyrinth of copyright has already had a devastating effect on an entire art form.

The paradox of permission

Local rappers Little Brother are beginning to make it to the big time. As we walk into the Durham restaurant Devine’s, an old friend laughs and gets up from the bar to embrace Phonte and rib him about their recent appearance on an MTV “You Hear It First” segment. The group just finished a national tour, and they’re hoping sales of their debut album The Listening will climb as a result of the exposure. But as Phonte, Pooh and 9th Wonder anticipate jumping from the independent label ABB Records to a major label with broader distribution, the trio is facing a tough reality: Major labels aren’t crazy about sample-heavy hip-hop. “All these cats that are making tens of millions of dollars without sampling,” Phonte explains, “making little keyboard beats and selling millions, and we doing our thing. The label has to cough up for samples and clear it with publishers and all that. It’s just more of a headache than what they think it’s worth.

“It’s flat out money. Sampling can get expensive,” Phonte sums up. “But if you really want to maintain your integrity as an artist, and in our shoes this is what we want to do, so any label that wants us to make the kind of music we want to make has got to deal with that.”

This grim financial reality has had a chilling effect. Early hip-hop albums, such as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising used hundreds of samples, churning the raw material of media saturation into biting commentary with a good beatchanging music culture forever.

“An album like that now would be impossible to make on a major label for the most part,” Phonte says. “If you’ve got 20 samples and each person that you’re sampling wants 10 percent of your song, I mean, it’s no song. It doesn’t add up.” And it doesn’t matter whether you’re sampling two seconds or an entire musical phrase. The copyright holder sets the price. Artists who don’t ask permission have been sued for more than the revenue that the offending song brought in.

As a result, much mainstream hip-hop you hear on the radio today bases a song around one or two riffs that have been cleared and paid for. Ironically, this makes for a lot less originality. Phonte says hip-hop has changed “for the worse.” But it’s a lot more convenient for the labels.

Phonte admits that in some cases, hip-hop artists aren’t just building on someone else’s song, they’re stealing it. “Yeah, all bullshit aside,” he laughs. “Hip-hop music is about breaking the rules.”

“If you were an artist back in the day and you made a record, you didn’t hardly see no money off it,” says Pooh. “It might not have been a big hit, but some young rapper come up and use your same record and sell millions, I’m gonna want some money too.”

“But really,” Phonte responds, “the whole thing I find hypocritical about it, particularly with sampling, is that people scream it’s for artists’ rights and you gotta protect the rights of the artists, but nine times out of ten, the artist don’t see no money off the record.”

Once in a while, 9th says an artist might realize that getting sampled can be a good thing. “They say ‘Hey, well, I really want people to feel my music now in 2003. This young rapper samples my song, maybe the people that really dig for samples will go back and buy all my records.’ But it’s a seldom case. For the most part, you have to pay.”

Documentary filmmaking is another art form that’s been up against the wall of copyright law. Take local filmmaker Brett Ingram, for instance. He recently completed a documentary about cartoonist Bruce Bickford. To tell the story of the cartoonist’s life, he felt it was necessary to include two archival pieces of film. A few seconds of an Alka Seltzer commercial from the 1950s featuring a cartoon character named Speedy was the first clip. “Speedy fits into the story as something that really captured Bruce’s imagination early on,” Ingram explains. “And you kind of have to see the film to understand how it fits in with the whole mythology of his animated world.” Use of the 20-second commercial footage cost $750.

Bickford’s father helped build the Bormac missile. The filmmaker found a 30-second public service announcement that he wanted to use, for which the Boeing company charged Ingram $500.

Ingram’s entire 82-minute film cost only $25,000 to make, so those two permissions add up to five percent of the cost of the filmfor less than a minute of the total footage.

He might have argued that both of those clips fall under Fair Use in the context of the documentary. But why take the chance? “I’m being cautious, because I don’t want to get sued.” He hopes the film will gain national distribution. “If that opportunity comes about I don’t want to get to that point and have someone say, well, you didn’t clear the rights so we can’t distribute it.”

Many filmmakers have experienced this nightmare, says Nancy Burski, founder of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. “Many filmmakers are so surprised to get a film into a festival that they don’t clear rights for other usage, and at that point, clearing the rights can be more expensive.”

More than once, she says a director has had to cut long segments of footage because a copyrighted song was playing in the background during an interview. She says one director making a documentary about the San Francisco Opera was told to pay Fox Television $10,000 because a blurry image of Marge and Homer Simpson appeared on a TV screen in the background for four seconds. The filmmaker ultimately decided to cut the footage.

Burski thinks this kind of incident shows just how unfair the system is. “The cost of the usage really needs to be scaled according to the potential revenues for the film. I just think it’s totally out of whack that a blockbuster film is going to pay the same licensing fee as Brett Ingram.”

Keeping creative people informed is a tough job. “Artists are confused,” says Burski. “They’re certainly concerned about the challenges of licensing and copyright. It’s not like they’re ignoring it.” But many filmmakers don’t have the legal support, the experience or the money to clear all the rights for their documentaries. Last year’s Full Frame festival included a special panel on how issues of copyright and the public domain affect documentary filmmakers, and she says the festival plans even more discussions in 2004.

Losing our history

Laurie Racine, who founded the Full Frame festival with Burski, says Hollywood is starting to take notice. Racine is a jack-of-all-trades in the progressive intellectual property movement. She’s president of the Center for the Public Domain, a non-profit foundation created by Red Hat Linux software founder Bob Young, which has provided the seed funding for several national projects, including Creative Commons. She also works with the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California to try to influence people in the entertainment industry to think about copyright in a different way. “Defining the public domain is hard enough,” she says. “So for individual artists and cohorts of artists to understand, this is a huge problem.” And while legal scholars might know the law, they don’t know what it’s like to try to create art in this climate. “It is our job, those of us who are not artists but want to support the artist community, to give them a road map.”

Racine says it’s important for artists to take advantage of what is in the public domain. Otherwise, we have a lot to lose. “Not only are we in danger of losing our history, we’re in danger of it getting skewed. As certain people control it for longer and longer periods of time, we learn about it through one channel. So it’s not that different from media consolidationwhoever controls the information controls the way it is perceived and viewed and delivered.”

Ingram shares this perspective. “All this ownership stuff prevents artists from being able to critique this giant corporate monster that controls the media,” he says. “If I were to do a documentary that criticizes a network, I won’t have anything to show in my documentary because I can’t use clips of what they’ve done legally without their permission, and they’re not going to give me permission if I’m doing something critical.”

While the timing of the copyright cartel has a negative affect on most film material, there are many films in the public domain, and a few filmmakers who are trying to make sure people know about them. The Prelinger Archive, a San-Francisco based online library, has put more than 1,000 public domain films online for anyone to watch or use for non-commercial purposes. Skip Elsheimer of Raleigh, the founder, curator and presenter of the A/V Geeks film series, met the archive’s founder, Rick Prelinger, years ago through a query about a specific film, and describes him as a mentor. Through their collaboration, the local collector has learned a lot about the intricacies of the public domain.

Elsheimer himself has more than 13,000 obscure films16mm, classroom filmstrips and bizarre instructional films, among others. He says people would be surprised by how much material is in the public domain. Some Hollywood films weren’t considered important enough for the studios to bother to renew their copyrights. Others were never copyrighted in the first place.

“Some of these films are really ephemeral. They were created for a specific audience at a specific time. A good example would be a film that was made to train people working on heavy Caterpillar equipment called Shake Hands with Danger. It’s funny, it’s entertaining, and it’s filled with fake gore.” And since it was never copyrighted, you can show it, copy it, sample it, or sell it.

But thanks to the 1976 law, everything created since then is automatically copyrighted and renewed, even if no one cares about it. “The biggest problem is that a lot of the entities that created those works don’t exist anymore,” says Elsheimer. “Legally, you’re not supposed to use them, but there’s nobody out there to represent them. You have this vast amount of knowledge and work that cannot be touched for 50, 60, 70 years.”

Trying to find out what has slipped into the public domain is “a big muddled mess, because you have to know all the subtleties of the law,” he says. And media consolidation makes things even more outrageously complicated. “Companies that own other companies now don’t even know what copyrights they own.”

Elsheimer says filmmakers are much more cautious now, and the films are suffering for it. “It seems like people our age, in their 20s and 30s, are so aware of copyright, more now than ever, and it’s so limiting to us. That just wasn’t the case back in the day. Experimental filmmakers in the ’60s and ’70s would appropriate stuff all the time and they just didn’t care.”

Ingram’s caution has kept him from facing any lawsuits. But even artists who are confident that their work is copyright kosher have been dragged into the courtroom. A local attorney who works with Boyle at Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain learned about the intricate dysfunctions of copyright law when she defended one such artist.

Time to fight

Almost every young woman who grows up in the South reads Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s antebellum romance. For young African-American women, the story often holds a bitter place in their imaginations, because of its romanticization of slaveholding society and its portrayal of black characters as primitive and even apelike. Writer and scholar Alice Randall grew up haunted by the world of Scarlet O’Hara. Her 2001 novel The Wind Done Gone takes aim at that world by telling a different story of Tara through the eyes of a slave girl on the plantation. “The people at Houghton Mifflin, her publisher, didn’t expect to be sued for the book,” says Duke Law professor Jennifer Jenkins, who was part of the team that defended Randall’s book in a landmark court case. “They were only doing a limited release of 25,000 copies. The literary allusions it makes to Gone With the Wind are so sparing and so subtle. It never quotes a single sentence in full from Gone With the Wind.” The few references the author does make are used to tell an entirely different story. “They just didn’t think it would be an instance of copyright infringement.”

When the case landed in the Atlanta law firm where she worked, Jenkins and her colleagues were equally surprised that Mitchell’s estate would take such aggressive action. “Those of us who love literature were puzzled from a literary perspective, because of course literary history is full of examples in which the borrowing is much more substantial than in The Wind Done Gone. From a legal perspective it also seemed puzzling at first to us. First, Gone With the Wind is still under copyright?” Originally set to expire in 1992, legal extensions have pushed the copyright to 2032, almost a century after its creation.

“We were also puzzled because at first blush this seems like an obvious instance of Fair Use,” Jenkins continues. “It’s social commentary, it’s political commentary, it’s direct criticism and parody of Gone With the Wind. But then when you step back and look at the way the law has evolved, you realize that the parody doctrine had not actually been applied to works of literature.”

Parody might seem like an oversimplification of The Wind Done Gone‘s relationship to the original, but in legal terms, it was the novel’s best defense. Jenkins’ team initially lost, but later won the case in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Courts have defined parody as being different from satire. Parody is an attack of a specific work. Satire uses a work to attack some other targetusing images from “Father Knows Best,” for instance, to critique 1950’s patriarchy. Legal precedents have protected parody, but not satire.

Boyle, who works with Jenkins at the Duke Law School, says artists would be perplexed by how the law has interpreted their intentions. “Copyright law says that it tries not to draw aesthetic lines, and judges claim that they’re not in the business of making aesthetic judgments.” When judges look at a work, they’re supposed to consider, is it original? Is it expression? They don’t try to position themselves as art critics. “Yet the structure of the lines they draw are in fact deeply loaded with all kinds of aesthetic assumptions,” Boyle says. “For appropriation art, for the whole kind of postmodern, referential, ironic art, that’s really problematic.”

Open source art

Perhaps it’s naive to think the Internet can save us. The dotcom bust wasn’t the only disappointment of the mid-1990s. If it hadn’t been for the copyright extension laws, the public domain would have exploded at about that time. “Suddenly all of this stuff would have been on the Net,” Boyle says. But for those who want to escape the copyright quagmire, the Web is a venue where artists can contribute to a rich public domain and still make money off their own work. With its infinite scope, loose network of searchable data and cross-references, it’s a model for the “decentralized system of creativity” that Boyle says copyright was meant to provide.

Just as online file trading has hacked the economic juggernaut of the music industry, weblogs have provided the public with truly independent war reporting and media criticism, and photographers have been able to set up shop on the Internet by using digital cameras, keyword coding and Paypal.

“Getting content from a creator to a listener or a reader is no longer as hard as it used to be,” says Boyle. Groups like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America have not wanted to embrace that fact. “They want to use copyright to make their business model illegal to challenge. It’s like the people who used to sell whale oil for lamps trying to step in and say electricity’s illegal.”

Meanwhile, the change in technology has forced judges to confront changing meanings in copyright lawwhat does it mean to make a copy, for instance?which has resulted in a further morass of legal interpretation, nearly as subjective as the legal distinctions of parody and satire. But even if the suits and the lawmakers have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, the artists who opt in to the public domainas users, contributors or collaboratorshave already accomplished a lot simply by putting their work out there.


Copyright: Legally granted property rights in intellectual works embodied in some physical means of expression, such as print, musical score or electronic image. (Source: Yale University Library)

Public Domain: The status of publications, products, and processes not protected under patent or copyright. (Source: American Heritage College Dictionary)

Fair Use: The right set forth in Section 107 of the United States Copyright Act, to use copyrighted materials for certain purposes, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. (Source: Yale University Library)

Get proactive

The organizations and web sites below offer artists ways to access raw material from public domain archives and make their work available on their terms.

Tools and resources

Creative Commons
A non-profit organization that provides legal and technological tools to allow creators to designate a range of uses for their work. It’s founded on the same principle as the Open Source Software movement: that culture improves through collaboration.

Center for the Public Domain
A Durham-based non-profit foundation that supports the growth of the public domain by establishing programs, grants and partnerships in the areas of academic research, medicine, law, education, media, technology and the arts.

Center for the Study of the Public Domain
Part of Duke Law School’s intellectual property program, this center was founded in 2002 with the mission of promoting scholarship on the contributions of the public domain to science, culture and innovation.

The Intellectual Property Law Server
This site provides free information about intellectual property law including patent, trademark and copyright, with comprehensive links, general information, space for professionals to publish articles and forums for discussing related issues.

Chilling Effects
A clearinghouse of cease-and-desist letters sent to Internet users, this project aims to educate people about how First Amendment rights and intellectual property laws can protect them.

A joint project of the Center for the Public Domain and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, this online library began as one of the original nodes of the Internet, and is headed by digital guru Paul Jones. The site is home to hundreds of local and international projects, including UNC’s Documenting the American South and the Web streams of several college radio stations.

Internet Archive
The largest and most comprehensive digital library, the Internet Archive is what it sounds like: An archive of all the stuff that’s online. Access is free, and designed to serve researchers, historians, scholars and general public.

Raw material

Project Gutenberg
Founded in 1971 by proto-Internet pioneer Michael Hart, this foundation is the oldest producer of free electronic books. All texts on the site, from Alice in Wonderland to Shakespeare’s complete works, are in the public domain and are available in the simplest possible format (ASCII) for any use by anyone. Volunteers worldwide proofread and encode the texts.

Prelinger Archive
Founded in 1983 by film collector Rick Prelinger, the physical archive is comprised of tens of thousands of “ephemeral” films (advertising, educational, industrial, amateurstuff that never was copyrighted or fell out of copyright). The films were acquired in 2002 by the Library of Congress. The online archive provides more than 1,600 in digital form, which can be viewed and downloaded.


Public Knowledge
A Washington, D.C.-based public-interest group, this alliance advocates on behalf of librarians, educators, musicians, scientists, journalists, software programmers and consumers for the preservation of the public domain and the fortification of the information commons of the Internet.

The Eric Eldred Act
This site provides information about the landmark Eldred vs. Ashcroft Supreme Court case and focal point of the campaign to overturn the Copyright Term Extension Act in order to expand the public domain.

Electronic Frontier Foundation
EFF is a nonprofit group of lawyers, policy experts and volunteers whose stated mission is to preserve the digital rights of individual citizens. Often called “the ACLU of the Internet,” this group has been fighting the Recording Industry Association of America’s lawsuits against file sharers, and generally challenges legislation that violates privacy or encroaches on usage, such as the Patriot Act and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

Future of Music Coalition
A musician’s advocacy group that led by indie rocker Jenny Toomey, FMC stands up for artists in the arenas of law, public policy and intellectual property. This group fought hard against the Federal Communications Commission’s recent rollback of media ownership laws, and works to find ways for musicians to benefit from technology.

The Illegal Art Exhibit
This traveling exhibition of “illegal” art was launched by former Chapel Hill resident Carrie McLaren who publishes Stay Free! Magazine. Art in the show lambasts corporate culture and appropriates copyrighted symbols and other materials under Fair Use.