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What is the Public Domain?

Copyright, New Media Law & E-Commerce News

What Is The Public Domain?

22 May 2017
ISSN 1489-954X

What Is the Public Domain?

Public domain is a frequently used term in copyright parlance, yet it isn’t defined in copyright statutes nor is it always properly understood. Below we provide some insight into when a work is in the public domain and what that means.

Before we get to that, though, I’m pleased to share some exciting news with you: I’ve just submitted the manuscript for the third edition of my book, Licensing Digital Content: A Practical Guide for Librarians, to my publisher. This edition will be published later this year, and I look forward to sharing more information with you about its release when the details are available. Thanks to all of you who shared your concerns, questions, anecdotes and other feedback about licensing digital content — your input has helped make this new edition the strongest yet.

If you haven’t already, please take 15 seconds to click here and tell us a little more about your interest in copyright so can continue to share the news and information you want to hear.


What Is the Public Domain?

Although commonly used in copyright parlance, the phrase “public domain” is not in the U.S. Copyright Act. It is, however, commonly used to refer to content that is not protected by copyright law. Works that are in the public domain may be used freely, without obtaining permission from or compensating the copyright owner.

Such works or content may not be protected for a variety reasons, including the following:

  • The duration of copyright in the work has expired. In the U.S., for example, the copyright in a book expires 70 years after the death of its author. (In Canada, copyright expires 50 years after the author’s death.)
  • The work has been produced by the U.S. federal governmentIn the U.S., works produced by the federal government don’t have copyright protection.  However, a work produced by a consultant to the government may have protection and that copyright may be transferred to the government.  Note that in other countries such as Canada, there is copyright protection in federal government works.
  • The work isn’t fixed in a tangible form. For example, a work such as a speech, lecture or improvisational comedy routine that hasn’t previously been written or recorded in any manner isn’t protected by copyright and therefore is in the public domain.
  • The work didn’t include a proper copyright notice prior to 1 March 1989. In the U.S., this doesn’t apply to works created after 1 March 1989 since a copyright notice is no longer mandatory to protect a work. However, prior to that date, notice of copyright was necessary on all published works — without this notice, the work went into the public domain. Note that most countries don’t have a copyright notice requirement.
  • The work does not have sufficient originality. Examples of works that may not have sufficient originality to be eligible for protection by copyright include: lists or tables with content from public documents or other common sources.

Examples of Public Domain Works

Works in the public domain in the U.S. generally include the following:

  • Federal legislative enactments and other official documents
  • Titles of books or movies, short phrases and slogans, lettering or coloring
  • News, history or ideas (note that a description of an idea in text or images, for example, may be protected by copyright)
  • Plots, characters and themes from works of fiction
  • Procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries or devices

Adaptations of Works in the Public Domain

An adaptation of a work in the public domain may have copyright protection on its own as a new version of a work. Adaptations include translations, amended versions and annotated versions. For example, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet may be in the public domain, but a new version with annotations or illustrations may have copyright protection in these new parts of the work.

Public Domain in Other Countries

The fact that a work is either protected by copyright in the U.S. or in the public domain in the U.S. doesn’t mean that same work will have the same status in another country. For example, a U.S. government work may be in the public domain in the U.S. but protected by copyright in Canada. Also, due to different durations of copyright among countries, a work that is still protected by copyright in the U.S. because of the 70-year duration may be in the public domain for the last 20 of those 70 years in a country where copyright duration is 50 years.

Copyright Awareness, Education and Training

Legally Using Images eTutorial

Do you use images and other third party content? Copyright’s Legally Using Images primer/refresher course will teach you which images require copyright permission and which you can safely use for free, as well as how to avoid hidden traps in licensing language. There’s still time to register!

Each of the 10 e-lessons in Legally Using Images provides up-to-date information on the topic listed, sets out fundamentals for that topic, has a self-marking quiz, and provides URLs for further reading.

Course Dates: 1–16 June 2017

Copyright, New Media & E-Commerce News is distributed for free by Lesley Ellen Harris, Information contained herein should not be relied upon or considered as legal advice. Copyright 2017 Lesley Ellen Harris. Please share!

Posted on: May 23, 2017, 9:23 am Category: Uncategorized

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