Copyright Law Essentials - Public Domain
In this blog, we will go over what “Public Domain” in copyright law refers to in terms of definition, how materials are added, important notes to keep in mind, correct usage, and how to find public domain works. All of the laws and regulations mentioned in this blog are based on United States law.
Copyrighted material within the public domain is not protected under any copyright, trademark, or patent laws, meaning no intellectual property laws apply. If no one owns these materials who does? Instead of an author, artist, or corporation owning these the public does. An individual has the ability to freely use any of the public domain works in any way they see fit.
Works are typically added to the public domain in four different ways.
- Expired copyright
- As is common knowledge in copyright law in the United States copyrights have a life of up to 70 years post creation. So as of 2019 anything copyrighted in or before 1923 is added to the public domain. These additions are completely mandatory regardless of who created the work such as individual author, a group of authors, or a work for hire.
- As an aside, works published after 1977 will not expire until 70 years after the author's death. In the case of group publishing, the clock will not start ticking until the last surviving author dies.
- Owner of copyright has failed to follow copyright rules
- A law in 1964 required all works published prior to that year to renew their copyright during the 28th year post-publication. Due to lack of vigilance by many copyright owners, thousands of copyrights had entered the public domain due to lack of renewal. Today this law does not exist so a renewal during the 28th year is unnecessary.
- Another law was a copyright notice for works prior to March 1st Before this date it was mandatory for all published works to have a notice of copyright. If a copyright owner did not use this notice the work was added to the public domain. Just like the other law, this is no longer a requirement in the United States.
- “Dedication” in which a copyright owner purposefully adds works to the public domain
- Authors have the ability to not copyright their works and in turn dedicate their works to the public domain. This leads to a work being free to use by anyone in anyway they see fit.
- Frequently content creators will try to dedicate works although they are not the copyright owner. This is not allowed since only the copyright owner has the ability to dedicate a work to the public.
- The type of work of not protected under copyright law
- This is the broadest of the four additional categories.
- Any works published by the United States federal government do not have copyright protection. This includes any work from a federal government employee or officer, assuming it was created in that individual's formal office, along with laws, ordinances, and court rulings.
- Local and State laws, ordinances, and court decisions are also added to the public domain once they are enacted but can be copyrighted by the originator when they are model codes.
- Federal publications can contain copyrighted material even though they are in the public domain, in this case, the copyrighted portion will be indicated. An example of this is if a copyrighted chart or graphic is used in a federal publication.
- Short phrases are not allowed under copyright laws since they are considered common idioms of the English language and therefore are free for anyone to use. These phrases can include names, titles, or small groups of words such as “A dime a dozen”.
- Marketing and advertising slogans are copyrightable as long as they are not determined to be too similar to already existing slogans or common English idioms.
- Facts, theories, and ideas are also immediately added to the public domain.
- If a fact is discovered it becomes part of the public domain to be used freely. Similarly, if someone were to create a theory that theory is added to the public domain.
- An example of this would be a scientist discovering a new planet; anyone can use this fact. Then someone comes up with the theory that this new planet has Earth-like characteristics, this can also be used by anyone.
- The unique manner of which facts or theories are expressed can be copyrighted. Back to the concept of an Earth-like planet, if a movie director takes these ideas and makes a movie about aliens living there it is protected under copyright laws.
- Compilations of facts and/or theories can be copyrighted, such as world record books or a book of historical facts.
Interestingly, collections of these public domain works can be protected by copyright. These collections or compilations can come in many forms from books or websites to a series of videos or even songs. Just because the subject matter of that of which is available in the public domain does not mean that any version, interpretation, or transcription of said works can be freely used. Frequently authors, songwriters, and directors will use public domain information and add their own unique twists to make it their own and subsequently copyright worthy. An example of this is Holiday in Cambodia by American punk rock band Dead Kennedys where facts of the Cambodian Genocide by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are portrayed, yet the song is copyrighted.
Copyright protection always ends at the end of the calendar year of which it is set to end, essentially meaning December 31st. An example of this would be if an author dies on July 13th, 2001 the United States copyright would continue until December 31, 2071, then on January 1st, 2072 the work would be a part of the public domain.
One may ask “How do I know what is available to freely use from the public domain?” and this question can be problematic. One key to knowing if something is in the public domain is to use simple logic with the above categories. Does the concept or material fall under one of the above categories such as date of publication or unprotected type of material? After careful speculation one can see if the public domain is an option.
Even with this form of research, further knowledge can be necessary. The Internet has many free resources available if one is dedicated enough to spend the time searching. Looking through collections, which may be copyrighted, and finding specific public domain works to use without issue.
Legal documents are some of the easiest to find since most federal and state records are stored both physically and in online databases. Navigating these databases can be time-consuming but will often yield results.
When in doubt paying for an online service should produce results or hiring a law firm specializing in said forms of research and law will produce fruitful results.
Public Domain in the United States can be confusing for some but can be well understood with a little research and dedication. Knowing the different ways in which works are added to the public domain, both for keeping works out and finding quality content, is important. This blog works as a guide for you to begin your journey through the public domain.
Copyright Public Domain Issues
Contact us if you are facing legal issues involving public domain, DMCA takedown, YouTube Law, or General Copyright Infringement of Social Media disputes. We can be reached at (877) 276-5084 of by emailing us through our contact form.
Blog is written by Tomas Braly - Texas A&M graduate.