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Is it dangerous to take a public domain picture from Wikipedia and use it on your blog or print it on a T-shirt? Last week the  COMMUNIA blog wrote about a copyright case in Germany where several users of public domain pictures received letters from the lawyers of Mannheim’s Reiss-Engelhorn museum. The letters demanded payment for the use of photos of public domain art works that had been uploaded to Wikipedia. The museum justifies this legal action by pointing to the costs of digitizing their artworks and the respective acquisition of some form of ancillary copyright protection for simple photographs (“Lichtbildschutz”, § 72 in the German copyright law). On Wikimedia Commons, the repository that hosts media for Wikipedia, there is already a separate category for “Images subject to Reiss Engelhorn lawsuit”.


Amongst the several recipients of the letters were not only Wikimedia Germany and the Wikimedia Foundation, but also the online radio station and the non-profit website Musical&Co, which features music-related articles authored by children for children.  Read the rest of this entry »

One of the things that make blogs particularly interesting are series. The “series” series recommends series at related blogs. This time I am recommending the series “12 for 2012” over at the 1709 blog, whose name refers to the first purpose-built copyright law, i.e. the Statute of Anne of 1709. 

In spite of several term extensions over the last century, copyright law is still temporally limited. After the copyright protection term expires, works enter into the public domain (see “The Digital Public Domain: Relevance and Regulation“). In Europe, copyright protections terms are very long, lasting 70 years after the death of the creator. When a work finally enters the public domain, anyone is free to reproduce, distribute and remix it without asking for permission.

Celebrating prominent bodies of works that fall into the public domain on January 1 2012, fellow blogger Miriam Levenson has recently started the series “12 for 2012“:

During each of the twelve days of Christmas, the 1709 Blog is bringing readers some information concerning an author, composer, artist or creator who died in 1941 and whose works fall into the public domain in 2012 in countries which operate a “life plus seventy years” term for copyright in authors’ works.

Today, for example, Miriam Levenson features Virginia Woolf: Read the rest of this entry »

Two weeks ago the First Berlin Symposium on Internet and Society took place in Berlin, celebrating the opening of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. Specifically for this event I had prepared a paper on “The Digital Public Domain: Relevance and Regulation” (SSRN), which was presented and then commented upon by Juan Carlos de Martin and Felix Stalder. Both provided very thoughtful criticsm and extensions to the paper, introducing an overall discussion that was very constructive and focused on the issues tackled in the paper.

While I have not managed to blog about the workshop so far, Anne-Catherine Lorrain from the COMMUNIA Association has now provided an extensive summary. There  she documents why mapping the public domain empirically is a worthwhile exercise:

The empirical mapping of the public domain should help identifying more precisely the economic relevance of the public domain. The regulation framework applying to the public domain can produce some direct effects on the economy, and more particularly on innovation. As a matter of fact, businesses can suffer genuine legal uncertainty when it comes to identify what is protected by IP rights and what is not. The positive economic impact of content being in the public domain is sometimes already acknowledged in practice. For instance, some patent rights holders can decide to donate patentable inventions in order to create a pre-competitive market. Like the “adjustment process” (Schumpeter), the utility of the public domain to improve competition should be demonstrated, although the question about how this aspect should be echoed within legislation remains.

Besides, her summary features the pink sky over Berlin towards the end of the workshop:

Pink sunset on the Spree behind the Public Domain session speakers from left to right Martin Kretschmer, Leonhard Dobusch, Felix Stadler, Juan Carlos De Martin; picture: Anne-Catherine Lorrain

 I can only thank Anne-Catherine very much for providing this great summary and endorse reading the whole transcript.


As my stay here at the Social Science Research Center (WZB) draws to a close, I am happy to present some of the work I did during summer. In preparation for the upcoming First Berlin Symposium on Internet and Society, October 25-28, I wrote a paper entitled “The Digital Public Domain: Relevance and Regulation” (PDF). The following is taken from the abstract:

After clarifying the notion and different areas of the (digital) „public domain“ – specifically with reference to related terms such as public goods and (anti-)commons –, the paper engages in discussing literature on its relevance for society in general and economic innovation in particular. […] How effective these abstract potentials of the public domain are utilized depends on the respective public domain regulation. […] In the last section, the paper presents open research questions and makes some preliminary suggestions for potential research strategies.

At the symposium, the paper will be discussed in workshop on October 26, chaired by Martin Kretschmer and with comments provided by Felix Stalder and Juan Carlos de Martin. Of course, comments prior to this workshop are most welcome!


Google Books Ngram Viewer is a fantastic tool showing how certain phrases have occurred in a corpus of books over a selected period of time. Recently, fellow bloggers over at orgtheory have played around with this tool (see, for example, “market – science- religion“).

Working on the issue of the digital public domain during my stay at the WZB, I was curious to compare the mentions of “public domain” and “intellectual property”, which are depicted in the graph below:

The resulting graph is pretty interesting. First, I did not know that the term “intellectual property” was virtually non-existant at all prior to 1980. This is remarkable since the negotiations that in the end led to the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) had started in the early 1980s. Again, we can observe a shifting baseline effect (see “Shifting Baseline in Assessing Copyright Regulation?“): today the concept of “intellectual property” has become completely taken for granted, while 30 years ago even the phrase hadn’t been used. Read the rest of this entry »

Starting this week and ending in October, I am visiting researcher at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB). The reason for my stay is a research project on the societal and economic role of the digital public domain, which I am working on together with Jeanette Hofmann. In this context, I started re-reading some of the classic works on the issue, such as David Lange’s “Recognizing the Public Domain” (PDF) from the year 1981.

Photo of Pac Man JohnGiez

Intellectual Property as “a game of conceptual Pac Man”?

While reading through this paper and his assessment of then recent changes in copyright law, several of his conclusions are strikingly similar to the ones made by contemporary copyright critics:

“I will argue that the growth of intellectual property in recent years has been uncontrolled to the point of recklessness.” (p. 147)
“The [copyright] law seemed suddenly to metastasize” (p. 153)
“The field of intellectual property can begin to resemble a game of conceptual Pac Man in which everything in sight is being gobbled up” (p. 156)

Since Lange’s assessments in 1981, however, there have been some of the most fundamental revisions in copyright’s history such as the TRIPS treaty or the subequent WIPO Copyright Treaties and their respective implementation into national law – all further increasing strength and scope of intellectual property rights (for a detailed account of the regulatory changes between 1980 and 2000, see Drahos and Braithwaite 2002). Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
February 2016
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