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Public Domain

Sam Ingalls
Last Updated June 3, 2021 6:07 am

The public domain describes the status of intellectual property or copyrighted work that is freely available for use and reproduction by anyone.

Public domain books, music, patents, and more, can be used without paying licensing fees to or purchase from their original creator. These works have had their copyrights expire, don’t qualify as copyrighted works, weren’t adequately copyrighted or renewed, or the owner waived their rights and dedicated it to the public domain.

How is the public domain used?

The concept is two-fold:

  1. Respect creators by providing the chance to own their work and benefit from its use through their ability to copyright the work as their own
  2. Enable society to benefit from free use of the creation after a certain amount of time

Depending on the work’s country of origin and public policy surrounding intellectual property, any citizen is free to use these works to their benefit.

Benefits of public domain

  • Access to critical historical works
  • Building blocks for creating new works
  • Enables competition for expired work market segments
  • Promoting education by making information accessible
  • Low-cost or free alternative to licensing rights

What is Public Domain Day?

Every January 1st is known as Public Domain Day to signify another year of copyrights expiring and entering the public domain. Because works between 1923 and 1977 received 95-year terms, Public Domain Day 2021 celebrated the release of works from 1925, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time.

Examples of public domain

Pre-Copyright Era

Before creating an intellectual property or copyright standard, creators didn’t have a governing system to manage property rights and copyright infringement.

Creators like Homer, da Vinci, and Shakespeare are well-known for their contributions to society. Still, because they lived before a time of copyright laws, the rights to use and ability to benefit from their works never were exclusive to the owner’s discretion, and therefore always available for free use.

Expired Copyright 

Though the United States didn’t cement its intellectual property laws until the Copyright Act of 1976, exclusive rights to works were in place long before. A century prior, Mark Twain was a renowned American author who copyrighted his works across North America and Europe. Though successful in obtaining the copyrights, book copyrights are limited to 70 years. Publishers are now free to print Twain and other authors’ books without regard to licensing or intellectual property.

Dedication of Copyright

Copyright holders are free to waive their rights in what is called dedication to the public domain. Dedications relinquish the creator of their rights to the work, thus making it available for all to use as they choose. The concept of dedication is debated among legal scholars as most copyright laws do not detail how creators waive their rights. While rare, creators need to state their works are for public use explicitly. With high levels of information-sharing due to social media, creators can quickly share their work and designate it as accessible for public use.

Automatically Public Domain

Some works do not qualify for copyright protection. These include individual words, short phrases, scientific facts and theories, legislation, and government personnel works.

For decades, the largest state school in Columbus, Ohio, dubbed itself “The Ohio State University.” In a years-long battle, OSU attempted to trademark the word “The” for branding materials. As the most common word in the English language, the school’s request has yet to be accepted.