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Public Domain and Copyrighted Work: All You Must Know

Copyright laws attempt to balance the rights granted to authors and the public’s right to access and utilize these works. Even authors profit from the capacity to access and use earlier authors’ works, which inspire them and help them acquire approaches for developing new works. The public domain and copyright restrictions create this balance between author rights and public rights.

What exactly is the public domain?

The public domain includes works that are not copyrighted and are thus free to use without permission from or payment to the original author. It means that works in the public domain can be freely copied, disseminated, altered, performed, and shown publicly as if the public owned them.

When do Works enter into Public Domain?

When a work’s copyright protection expires, it becomes the public domain. As previously stated, the duration of copyright protection varies by nation, although it usually ends 50 to 70 years after the author’s death.

They do not qualify for copyright protection. Facts and lists do not qualify for copyright protection. Hence, the ingredients in a recipe and the dates on a calendar are both in the public domain. However, the description of how to utilize the recipe’s components and the artwork in a calendar may be deemed unique and creative expressions and protected by Copyright.

Furthermore, in certain nations, official records are not protected by Copyright. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for example, is a United States government entity that creates many photos and movies that do not qualify for copyright protection and are thus in the public domain.

How may works in the public domain be used?

Works in the public domain can be utilized in any way by anybody. Consider Edvard Munch’s picture The Scream. Since its release into the public domain, this artwork has been replicated as posters, art books, inflatable dolls, key chains, cartoons, and an unlimited number of other goods. The many firms that sell these copies were not required to pay any royalties for the commercial use of this public domain work.

1. The work must not be a derivative work

When seeking public domain works to include in your new creations, be sure the version you’re utilizing is the original, public domain version, not a derivative work that may still be copyright protected. For example, the original text by Lewis Carroll and pictures by John Tenniel for the 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are in the public domain and can be freely used by anybody. However, the movie, paintings, cartoon characters, merchandising, and other works developed by Walt Disney in 1951 as an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s original Alice are still protected by copyright and cannot be used without The Walt Disney Company’s permission.

What are Derivative works?

Different authors frequently use works in the public domain in new works. The new work is referred to as a derivative work when an original work is translated, altered, or transformed in any way. Even if the source works from which derivative works were produced are in the public domain, Copyright protects derivative works. The creator and owner of the Copyright is the person who developed the derivative work. Anyone who wants to use a copyrighted derivative work (reproduce, translate, adapt, etc.) must first get permission from the derivative work’s creator.

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2. Be careful about the Related right associated with Copyrighted work in Public Domain.

Don’t forget about associated rights when searching for work in the public domain. While classical music works like Chopin’s are now in the public domain, subsequent performances and recordings of such pieces may still be protected under related rights. It implies you can perform the original music in public or utilize elements of it in a song you’re writing. However, the recordings of this piece that are still protected by associated rights cannot be copied, distributed, broadcast, or used in any other manner.

Where can you find works in the Public domain?

Many works considered classical or traditional are, in general, old enough to be in the public domain. Finding more modern works in the public domain, on the other hand, is not always straightforward. As we’ve seen, following these methods while looking for work in the public domain is beneficial:

1. Understand the intricacies of Copyright and associated rights protection in your nation

It includes how long they endure for each type of work and which works are not protected. Find out if your nation and the countries where the works were created are members of the Berne Convention for works not generated in your country. Check to see if your nation follows the shorter-term rule, which can help you determine if a work that is already in the public domain in the country where it was created is likewise in the public domain in your country.

2. Be specific about the work to be used

Determine if the work you intend to utilize is the original or a derivative work, as the latter may be protected by extra Copyright and associated rights.

3. Examine the copyright notice and the conditions of usage

This notice should assist you in determining who owns the rights and what sorts of rights are reserved. When looking for works on the Internet, this stage is very vital.

4. Check for the Copyright © symbol

Check if the work is protected by another sort of intellectual property, such as trademarks (usually denoted by the symbols ® or TM).

If you are still unclear whether or not the work is in the public domain after performing these basic tests, it is essential to get permission before using it.

The purpose of this article is to provide a general overview of the subject. It is difficult to explain the complete laws relating to artists in this article. This article cannot be used in place of legal counsel. We deal with cases relating to the infringement of Copyright and also provide Copyright Enforcement services. If you need more clarification on how one can use copyright work in the Public domain, please don’t hesitate to contact HHS Lawyers & Legal Consultant.


M. Al Khatem

Trademark & Intellectual Property

M. Al Khatem is a senior Trademark and Intellectual Property (IP) expert in HHS Lawyers. He has handled some of the firm’s complex, high-profile cases – many involving the protection of trademark and IP rights.