People of the Public Domain

Who is passionate about the public domain? This profile features our excellent Research Assistant for Public Domain Day, Sean Dudley, interviewed by Jennifer Jenkins.

JJ: You’re an active contributor to Wikimedia Commons, where all of your contributions are dedicated to the commons. What makes you want to dedicate your time to building this commons of knowledge and information?

Sean Dudley

Sean Dudley

SD: I like free things and I know other people like free things, so contributing to Wikimedia and Wikipedia just feels like a great way to share that while also promoting open access and the public domain. I’ve received so much knowledge, information, and hours of entertainment from these spaces that contributing is kind of my way of giving back at the present moment. And I have fun getting to do it. I love getting to dig into topics, finding new nuggets of information or pieces of media that were not available in one place before, and then getting to have it all centralized. It really scratches an itch in my brain and helps to stimulate my intellectual curiosity.

JJ: What inspired your interest in the public domain? How has the interest developed since you first learned about it?

SD: I was always a Wikipedia kid, browsing pages and reading as much as I could. And one day I found Night of the Living Dead and I thought it was so cool that a WHOLE movie was just free on Wikipedia with no issues. And then I remember watching this Adam Ruins Everything video on public domain in 2015 (featuring Professor James Boyle, author The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, as a bird) and I think that really ended up kickstarting the seeds of interest.

“I think that besides my girlfriend and my cat, the public domain is my favorite thing in the world.”

Ever since the public domain reopened in 2019 I’ve been more and more interested every year with it all kind of coming to a head in 2023 when I started to contribute to Wikimedia Commons. So I would say that my interest went from “that’s cool, I can watch a movie online” to “wow I’m thinking about this 65% of any given day and it feels impossible to shut down my brain when thinking about it.” I think that besides my girlfriend and my cat, the public domain is my favorite thing in the world.

I love getting to explore all the facets of public domain through the works that enter yearly, to the odd cases of copyright, and generally just seeing what people dig up. I love to advocate for the public domain and share it with others. It feels like my own space in the world where I feel comfortable and I get to share my intellectual curiosity with other like minded people.

JJ: What surprised you the most about copyright law and the public domain?

SD: I do really well with approaching things from logical points of view, like 2+2=4 or the sun rises in the east.  The logic tracks. Copyright law is often not very logical. It is full of contradictions, patchworks, and these weird complexities that make it really tough to approach initially. So as I started to uncover the layers of copyright law I was really surprised by how unplanned it was. For something that has such a strong influence on how culture and art is disseminated, I would think that the way it’s built would be more straightforward and thought out. But also once you start to steep yourself in this law and its rules it kind of clicks into place.

In regards to the public domain I think what’s most surprising is how much is actually in the public domain. Before I really got into it, I always thought of the public domain in a limited sense. Now I know that the public domain is so expansive and enriching. There used to be so many formalities that had to be followed to qualify for copyright, so lots of works just never qualified in the first place. It’s things we don’t even think about like a trailer for a movie, a self-published magazine by a club at a University, artwork created by someone who died 75 years ago, or photographs from our parents’ yearbooks. Things that probably don’t have any commercial value, but help to fill out the informal aspects of what culture was like at any given time. So I always celebrate more and more works entering the public domain, because it means the stuff that was left behind during that extra term of copyright gets a chance to shine now.

JJ: Do you have any favorite stories from your work in this area?

SD: My girlfriend’s parents graduated high school in 1979-1980, and they had their yearbooks from those same years. I had formed a contact with the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the same city where they are from, and I figured out they’d be interested in the yearbooks. So a few months ago we sent the yearbooks to Ohio, they got scanned, and now you can see them all online. That’s my favorite, because it’s a combination of my loves: my girlfriend and the public domain.

JJ: Can you tell us about some of your favorite Wikimedia contributions?

SD: There’s a few that totally spring to mind, but I’ve got over 1100 now so it’s tough to pick.

H. C. Miner Litho Co. Logo. This was my first deep dive into a new subject, and I found a wealth of really cool artwork and illustrations, including lots of prints of film posters, that this company printed. I was so into it that I found a letter online from 1922 with the logo on it and I bought it. Since I hadn’t seen a high quality copy of the logo online I decided to upload it myself just using my printer at home. I’m always really happy to see it online and know that people can appreciate it.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. I always felt bad for Oswald getting kind of forgotten through no fault of his own, so I was really excited that he had so many shorts becoming public domain this year. That extra spotlight on him was nice to see, and it also really ignited my passion for the public domain in a way that nothing else had so far.  When I made my first Wikipedia page, it was for one of his shorts, All Wet. So if you check out some of his shorts on Wikipedia you might see that I had some part in getting them out there. Anyway, I’m really excited for all of his 1928 shorts that are still extant to become public domain too.

Ozias Dodge. Ozias Dodge is a lithographer from Connecticut who died in 1925, and all of his works are public domain. I found some of his works on the Smithsonian’s Open Access site while I was taking my Creative Commons course, and I fell in love with how they looked. Dodge has no Wikipedia page or any presence anywhere on Wiki spaces, so I have started to change that. I am constantly trying to expand the copies of his works that are online, so much so that I made my girlfriend take a detour with me to a museum that houses his works when we were on our way back from a trip to Acadia National Park. We stopped and I took some photos of his works in person. Such a big fan.

And if we are talking on Wikipedia then Cannabis in Virginia and The Mad Doctor. These are two where I actually did some digging and gave them pretty substantial updates.

JJ: Tell us more about your Winnie-the-Pooh tattoo.

SD: Well, I love Winnie-the-Pooh, and I have since I was a kid. But my love was based on Disney’s adaptation. When I got my first tattoo I wasn’t sure if I’d find the process too painful and I was a broke college student, so I only got a red balloon. But I knew I wanted a whole Pooh tattoo, so about 5 months later I added the Winnie-the-Pooh onto it (the Disney version) and another balloon. I’ve had it almost three years now, so I had it even before the book was public domain. And if I had a chance to do it over I wouldn’t get the Disney version, but rather a public domain illustration. I figure now I’m just a walking copyright infringement.

Here is Sean’s ode to Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts – the Oswald cartoons from 1928 enter the public domain in 2024.

CC0This interview with Sean Dudley is made available under a CC0 license.

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