The term public domain refers to work “owned” by the public as whole. Works that are in the public are not protected by Intellectual Property rights, because they are not eligible or because those rights  have expired or have been forfeited by the creator, either deliberately or through carelessness. Anyone is free to use public domain material.

How Work enters Public Domain?

Something are  not eligible for intellectual property protection and are automatically in public domain. This includes:

  • Facts
  • Generic words, titles, and short phrases
  • Mathematical formulas

Work also enters the public domain when its IP protection expires. For patents, this term is generally 20 years form application (14 years from design patent). On occasion, patent may extended up to five years. They may also expire early if the patent holder does not pay maintenance fee. Copyright term are a bit more completed as the law has changed several times over past decades.

  • Under US law works published before 24 jan. 1, 1923, and are in public.
  • Work published between 1923 and 1977 will generally enter public domain 95 years after the first publication date. Those published before 1964 are already public domain if they were not properly renewed.
  • Work created before 1978 but not published between 1978 and 2002, will enter the public domain either 70 years after the author’s death at the end of 2047, whichever is longer. Works by unknown authors or done for hire will remain protected at least until the end of 2047.
  • Work created after 1977, become public domain either 95 years after publication or 120 years after the creation whichever comes first, with some caveats.

A copyright owner may also choose to release the work to public domain. These works usually contains an explicit statement such as,” This work is dedicated to the public domain.” Do not confuse public domain with creative common licensing, in which the author licenses the public to use a work with various restriction but without needing to request permission.

The Internet and Public Domain

Although much of the information posted to the internet is freely available to the public, the internet is not in and of itself public domain. Most of the material posted there is protected by copyright, regardless of whether the author has put a copyright notice on it. When you post your work online it is a good idea to include copyright notice yo remind people it is protected. In addition, making software or PDF files easily downloadable is not the same as placing it in the public domain. You may use the copy you downloaded for your personal use, but unless it includes a license stating otherwise, you may not resell it, distribute it, or claim it as your own work. That said, fair use still applies to material on internet, so if you want to use small amount for educational purposes or commentary, this generally is permissible. Overall, it is best to ask permission before using material from the internet. You can use copyright notice for this.

Government Website Content and Public Domain

Federal government work material created by federal government employees as a part for their jobs are automatically in public domain in United States. This includes material material published on internet, so much of what you find on government websites is public domain and free for you to use or republish. However not all material published on sites was government produced. The site may be:

  • Republish Copyrighted work under license
  • Publish excerpts of copyrighted work under fair use
  • Allow member of the public to contribute photos or other works to some section of a site
  • Commission works by independent contractors

Unless the websites states differently, the author of these types of work hold the copyright to them. In addition, the government may hold copyright to them. In addition, the government may hold the copyright transferred to it by creator. Finally, state and local government may, and often do, retain copyright to work created by their employees, including material on websites. In short, it is a good idea to read the disclaimer on the sites before assuming material credited to a specific person  or organisation are likely protected.

Using  Public Domain Property

You may use public domain property anyway you wish, including republishing it as it and creating derivative work. If you have added enough of your own creativity to the new work, you can even copyright work, although protection will only extend to the new material not any words copied directly. Moreover you cannot copyright abridged version or anthology that you have not added anything new to it. Keep in mind that public domain laws in other countries differ. The United States has treaties and conventions with many other countries, but works that have entered the public domain the the U.S. may not have in other countries, and vice versa.