Intellectual property is not always safeguarded. When it isn’t, it falls within the purview of the public domain. Understand what the public domain is and how to utilize IP that is currently in it.

What you’ll discover:

How Work Becomes Public Domain
Government Website Content and Public Domain Using Public Domain Material on the Internet

The word “public domain” refers to works that are “owned” by the general public. Works in the public domain are not protected by any intellectual property (IP) rights, either because they are ineligible or because the creator’s rights have expired or been surrendered, either intentionally or unintentionally. Anybody may utilize public domain content.

How Work Becomes Public Domain

Certain objects are inherently in the public domain and are not eligible for intellectual property protection. This includes the following:


Words, titles, and brief phrases that are generic

Formulas in mathematics

When work’s IP protection expires, it also enters the public domain. Its duration is typically 20 years from the date of application for patents (14 years from issuance for design patents). Patents may sometimes be renewed for up to five years. They may also expire prematurely if the patentee fails to pay maintenance payments.

Since the law has changed multiple times over the last century, copyright phrases are a little more difficult.

Works published before January 1, 1923, are in the public domain under US law.

Works produced between 1923 and 1977 are typically considered public domain 95 years after they were originally published. Those published before to 1964 are already in the public domain if not properly renewed.

Works produced before 1978 but not published between 1978 and 2002 will enter the public domain 70 years after the author’s death or at the end of 2047, whichever comes first. Unknown writers’ or works done for hire will be protected at least until the end of 2047.

After 1977, works enter public domain 70 years after the creator’s death. With certain exceptions, corporate works enter public domain 95 years after publishing or 120 years after creation, whichever comes first.

A copyright holder may also opt to make the work available to the public domain. These works frequently include a remark such, “This work is committed to the public domain.” Do not mistake public domain with Creative Commons licensing, in which the creator grants the public permission to use a work with some conditions but without requiring permission.

The Public Domain and the Internet

While most of the material posted on the Internet is freely accessible to the public, the Internet is not a public domain in and of itself. The majority of the work uploaded there is copyright protected, regardless of whether the author has included a copyright notice. When you submit your work online, attach a copyright notice to notify others that it is protected.

Moreover, making software or PDF files freely downloaded is not the same as making them available in the public domain. You may use the copy you downloaded for personal purposes, but you may not resell, distribute, or represent it as your own work unless it comes with a license that states otherwise.

Nonetheless, fair use still applies to information on the Internet, so using a modest quantity for educational or commentary reasons is often permitted. Ultimately, it is preferable to get permission before accessing Online content. You may do this by submitting a copyright request.

Public Domain and Government Website Content

In the United States, federal government works—material generated by federal government personnel as part of their jobs—are automatically in the public domain. This includes content released on the Internet, which means that most of what you discover on government websites (usually *.gov and *.mil sites) is in the public domain and free to use or reprint.

Nevertheless, not all of the content on these websites was created by the government. The website could:

Copyrighted works may be republished with permission.

Fair use allows you to publish snippets of copyrighted works.

Enable visitors to submit images or other assets to certain portions of a website.

Independent contractors are paid on a commission basis.

Unless otherwise stated on the website, the creators of these sorts of works own the copyright to them. Nevertheless, the government may be the owner of copyrights assigned to it by the inventor. Lastly, state and municipal governments have the authority to maintain copyright on work generated by their workers, including material on their websites, and they often do.

In summary, before presuming that content uploaded on the site is public domain, read the disclaimers. Pictures and other materials that are attributed to a particular person or organization are almost certainly protected.

Making Use of Public Domain Property

You are free to use public domain content in any manner you like, including republishing it in its entirety and generating derivative works. If you’ve contributed enough of your own innovation to the new work, you may even copyright it, albeit protection will only apply to the new content, not any words explicitly copied. You cannot copyright a shortened edition or anthology to which you have made no changes.

Bear in mind that public domain regulations vary from country to country. While the United States has treaties and agreements with many other nations, works that have entered the public domain in the United States may not have entered the public domain in other countries, and vice versa.

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