I'm spending 2019 digging through libraries, archives, and museum collections to find unusual and forgotten gems from the year 1923. Every month I'm going to create a hand-made zine (think photocopied and stapled!), highlighting a work, an artist, a genre, or a medium. These monthly zines will be sent directly to a small group of no more than 100 subscribers.
These are bits of creative material that are free to access, free to give away, and free to build upon. The public domain is our shared culture. And I'm so excited to share it with you.
1923 has served as an invisible barrier for decades. Over the past 20 years—the very time period that archives, databases, and collections were really starting to come online—the commons has been cut off at that year; works published before 1923 were safely in the public domain, while works published in 1923 or later were risky and required individual research.
On January 1, 2019, the public domain resumed its march forward after a 20-year hiatus. Our cultural commons now includes a handful of very famous works. One of the most iconic images of the silent film era. The first book of poetry by e e cummings. A legendary novelty song that topped the charts for weeks. These well-known works got lots of well-deserved attention this month as they rose into the public domain, their copyright restrictions falling away after so many years.
But for every creation that has had the popular and commercial appeal to sustain it through nearly a century of copyright restrictions, there are hundreds (or thousands!) of interesting and unusual pieces that risk being forgotten.
If we don't engage with the public domain, we can't truly feel its value. And if we don't feel its value, we will lose it—to industry groups that benefit from lopsided policy, or to companies that would privatize our shared culture, or simply to history and irrelevance.
This zine project is a humble counterforce, picking out a few compelling and thought-provoking subjects from a massive archive. An entire year of culture is intimidating, but I hope a few hand-selected highlights will give subscribers an easy and human-scale way to feel its weight.
Who am I?
My name is Parker Higgins, and I've spent the past decade working on expanding access to knowledge and celebrating the public domain.
For much of that time, I worked as the director of copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where I worked on policy issues and public education around the harms of long copyright terms and a diminished cultural commons. I've written specifically about the 1923 problem, and led campaigns to expand the public domain and our access to it.
One successful example was my campaign to encourage the USDA to publish its high-resolution scans of its pomological watercolor collection online, and then building a Twitter bot that brings samples from that collection to tens of thousands of people every day.
Risks and challenges
I have not yet found all the material that I am going to include this year, but I am not at all worried about finding enough strange and unusual works to fill 12 short volumes (and then some). Still, a monthly release schedule is ambitious and I approach it with appropriate humility.
Zine-making can be labor intensive, which is one reason I've capped this project at 100 subscribers. Last year, in anticipation of the New York Tech Zine Fest, I made and distributed a free zine called Computer Garden. In making this zine, I developed some software tools for layout and ran through a mailing work flow, so I'm confident that I can do fulfillment.
The budget is tight, because I don't want cost to be a barrier for anybody. Between postage and raw materials, this project will just about break even at $2 an issue. (That's why I, regretfully, have to charge international postage—there just aren't the margins for me to absorb it.)Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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