The Public Domain: Ten Things You May Not Know About It

Posted by Nick Niesen on November 1st, 2010

There's a little known world of free-to-claim products with unlimited profit potential, an Aladdin?s Cave of ready-made products for you to locate in minutes, re-package in hours, and sell as your own. It?s called ?The Public Domain? and it means you can legally copy and sell other people?s books, maps, films, and more, with no ongoing fees or royalties of any kind to pay ? EVER! Here are ten more things you may not know about the public domain ?..

* The public domain describes books and other creative works, such as photographs and maps, whose copyrights have expired, perhaps never existed at all, and no one has a better claim on those products than you. There are millions of public domain works that anyone can copy and sell, add their own name as author, and even copyright and stop others from selling similar items.

* Changes made to a public domain product, sufficient to make it a copyrightable product, describes it as a ?Derivative? work. Let's say you buy an old book about witchcraft, published in the USA before 1923, so definitely in the public domain. If you publish it 'as is' it's still in the public domain, although arguably a few minor changes to font or pagination, length of paragraphs will render it copyright protected. But tiny changes are insufficient to guarantee your new book is copyright protected. But change the title, add a few paragraphs of your own, include pictures of places witches were thought to exist, update spellings, remove dated terminology, and the book is now copyright protected and termed a 'derivative' work.

* A foreign translation of a public domain work is a derivative work and carries sufficient creativity to allow it full protection of copyright law.

* The public domain is not to be confused with reproduction or manufacturing rights. Reproduction and manufacturing rights, where, for example, someone gives you a master copy of their book or product with rights to reproduce that item does not mean their copyright is defunct or never existed. Reproduction and manufacturing rights are a concession, usually passed by the product owner, allowing others to reproduce his work, but rarely does copyright also pass to the recipient. Public domain rights last indefinitely; reproduction rights can be time limited or otherwise withdrawn or restricted.

* Public domain items can typically be amended by anyone, changed, reshaped at will, and copyright belongs to no one. Not so reproduction and marketing rights where the original creator invariably retains copyright and rarely allows others to alter his work.

* Just because you own the original work, such as a painting or original final draft of a book or piece of music, does not necessarily mean you also own copyright in the item. Nor does it always mean you can make and sell copies of your original product. Recently, on television, an artist explained that he had sold an original painting from which he earned large sums from limited edition signed prints. Asked why he sold the painting and, by implication the reprint rights, he insisted he had only sold the painting, not his intellectual copyright in the item. Someone else has the painting, he has the copyright and subsequent reprint copy marketing rights. His claims were verified by the programme?s legal team.

* Public domain is not the same thing as out of print. Out of print simply means the publisher has ceased creating new copies of a book or other item even though the item may still be fully protected by copyright law.

* Some sites hosting public domain products allow their materials to be downloaded and read, but ban subsequent printing or copying. Play safe, don?t assume no one will know if you copy their content. Many public domain works are edited or revised prior to upload and can easily be identified in later editions. Some sites insist you pay a royalty on money you make on items they have sourced from the public domain. Read the rules very carefully and do nothing until you are certain of your legal standing. The best way to stay safe is to download from sites without copying restrictions or obtain and copy a physical version of a product you?re sure is a first edition and in the public domain. But see the next tip to avoid a very common mistake.

* Under certain conditions creative works on which copyright was not renewed at an appropriate time or which did not include a copyright notice are deemed to be in the public domain. So say you buy a book at auction, it has no copyright notice, does that put it in the public domain? Probably. But be careful; it could be a page containing the copyright notice has been removed from the book, and it is still covered by copyright law. Books with reliable consecutive page numbering with no break in the sequence ? such as 1, 2, 3, 4 - can usually be trusted, unlike another with pages numbered i, ii, iv. What became of page iii, did it ever exist, has it been removed, was it a copyright page, or did it contain something else, perhaps it was blank!

* Cut the risk and choose from items known to be definitely in the public domain:

- Currently all items published in the USA before 1923 are in the public domain, meaning they can be virtually copied at will.

- Work first published in the USA between 1923 and 1963 where their copyright was not renewed in their 28th year are in the public domain.

- Work first published in the USA after January 1st 1978 retains copyright for the life of the author and seventy years thereafter, bearing close similarity to UK laws, see later paragraph.

- Work first published in the USA between 1978 and March 1st, 1989, without copyright notice AND without registration, is in the public domain.

- In the UK copyright typically extends to 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the creator died (not the same as 70 years since the creator?s death), with some other restrictions as explained concisely in 'Writers? and Artists? Yearbook' available from all main reference libraries. The book also covers other world copyright issues.

- Works published before copyright laws existed are in the public domain.

- Works dedicated so by the creator belong to the public domain. A writer or other creator can dedicate his work to the public domain, thereby relinquishing ownership and allowing anyone to use the work, even change it, or sell copies.

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Nick Niesen

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Nick Niesen
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