Public domain and duration of copyrights

Works in the Public Domain

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Let’s say you need to copy something for a project you’re working on, and you remember that most materials are protected by copyright. Then you recall all the damages and attorney’s fees that may result from a copyright infringement lawsuit. What are your options?

  • Get written permission from the copyright holder.
  • Copy only works that have expired copyrights (Public Domain).
  • Copy work without permission IF the copying qualifies as fair use.
  • Instead of copying anyone else’s work, create your own.

There are many works in the “Public Domain” that anyone can copy, make derivatives, distribute, perform, and display without permission. There are various ways that works get into the Public Domain.

  • The copyright to a work expires.
  • The author or artist donates the work to the Public Domain by expressly allowing anyone to copy it without permission.
  • The work was created by the federal government.
  • Any work before 1978 whose copyright formalities were not observed.

Duration of Copyrights

The duration of copyrights has changed numerous times since the first copyright statute. It was originally 14 years. Presently, it is the author’s or artist’s life plus 70 years! 1 If the work is created by employees of a corporation or the artist or author has incorporated his art business, the duration is either 95 years from the publication date or 120 years from the creation date, whichever is shorter. 2 This applies to all work created on or after January 1, 1978. All works created before this time are subject to the law that existed at the time the work was created. It also depends on whether the work was published or not. There were certain formalities that had to be observed, like displaying a copyright notice (©, name, and date) and registering the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. If the formalities weren’t satisfied in certain prescribed times, then the copyright failed and the work merged into the Public Domain. This makes it complicated to determine if a work is in the Public Domain. But there is a simple rule of thumb:

  • All published works created before 1923 are in the Public Domain.
  • All unpublished works created before 1883 are in the Public Domain.

Where You Can Find Work in the Public Domain

There are many websites with enormous data bases of works in the Public Domain. When shopping at sites that profess to contain Public Domain material, you should remember an old Roman warning: “Caveat Emptor.” It means “buyer beware.” There is always the risk that some work is fully protected by copyright and wound up in a purported Public Domain database by mistake or fraud.

Here is a collection of Public Domain sites where you can find anything from novels and poems to music, photos, and graphics that you can copy without permission: Public Domain Resources.

1 17 USC Section 302(a)
2 17 USC Section 302(c)