No One Can Hold The Wind: Control Over Art Released Into The Public Domain

(The author of this post is a licensed and experienced intellectual property attorney, but nothing in this post should be construed as specific legal advice. Consult an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction and familiar with the relevant law before making legal decisions.)

“Public domain” is a very slippery term, legally speaking. What it usually refers to is an artistic creation that either predates modern copyright law, or for which the copyright has expired – in other words, there is no applicable legal copyright in the work. Once something is in the public domain, anyone may use it in their own artistic creations. (Though this may create a new, copyrighted work, to the extent that the new creation comprises an original artistic creation beyond the artistic elements of the integrated public domain work.)

There’s no way, under US copyright law, to “release” a copyright before it expires. (This is a conversation I’ve had with other copyright lawyers.) Since neither registration nor notice are now required to create a valid copyright, it’s literally impossible to create a new work and have it NOT be copyrighted. However, one can release an artwork and offer the public an unlimited license to use it. Technically, such an artwork is still under copyright and is not “in the public domain,” in the way lawyers use the phrase, but for practical purposes, it may be thought of as being in the public domain.

That is just a little background for the actual topic of discussion for today, which is a game developed by indie developer Jason Rohrer called “One Hour One Life.” Mr. Rorher has an unusual business model: He “releases” all of his games into the public domain, and makes money from his creations in various ways that don’t involve strict control of the copyright. You can read about his philosophy here: Free Distribution.

Mr. Rohrer makes very good games, and between selling copies of “his” version of the games, donations, and other methods, he makes his living. But of course, you wouldn’t be reading about him on a legal blog if there wasn’t a legal issue.

*ominous music*

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