Public Domain




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The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.

Public Domain Material and Copyright Laws
Excerpts of article titled, "New Rules For Using Public Domain Materials", by Attorney Lloyd J. Jassin

Copyright protection does not last forever. That is why copyright is often called a "limited monopoly.” When copyrights grow old and die, the works they protect fall into the public domain. Subject to certain exceptions, public domain works may be freely copied or used in the creation of derivative works without permission, or authorization, of the former copyright owners.

In addition to works no longer protected by copyright, the public domain also includes works that are in the public domain for failure to include a proper copyright notice. Prior to March 1, 1989, notice of copyright (e.g., © 1941 by Irving Berlin) was required on all published works. If the notice was omitted, or appeared in the wrong form or location, the work was put into the public domain. Be aware that if the copyright notice was omitted on copies of works published between January 1, 1978 and March 1, 1989, copyright was not automatically lost if certain measures were taken to cure the oversight.

Besides "expired" copyrights, and works lacking proper notice, the following categories of works are also not eligible for copyright protection: (i) U.S. Government works, (ii) state judicial opinions, (iii) legislative enactments, and other official documents, (iv) unadorned ideas and facts, (v) blank forms, (vi) short phrases, (vii) names, titles and slogans, (viii) extemporaneous speeches, and (ix) standard plots and stock characters.

Determining Whether a Work is in the Public Domain
Knowing when a copyright expires will allow you to take advantage of the abundance of material found in the public domain. Therefore, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of copyright law.

One helpful rule-of-thumb is that all works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain in the United States. In addition to pre-1923 works, there are also millions of other works that have fallen into the public domain for either (a) failure to renew; or (b) failure to affix a proper notice.

In the United States, the length of copyright protection a work receives depends upon when it was created. Check your countries copyright laws, as it varies from country to country.


This article discusses general legal issues of interest and is not designed to give any specific legal advice pertaining to any specific circumstances. It is important that professional legal advice be obtained before acting upon any of the information contained in this article.

If have any questions on any material on our web site or copyright issues, please contact us or read our copyright policy here or terms of use here or privacy policy here.



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