What is the public domain?

Glenn W. Peterson

When a painter, musician, writer or another type of artist creates a unique work, he or she typically gets a copyright to prevent others from using it and profiting from it without permission. When that copyright expires, the piece becomes part of the public domain, and is then available for use free in the U.S., according to Stanford University. You don’t need permission and you don’t have to pay to use anything in the public domain. It belongs to everyone.

You should also understand that someone who compiles a new work from works already in the public domain can copyright the new work. For example, a singer who puts together an album of songs that belong to the public can copyright that album as a unique work. If the album is reviewed by a music critic who collects the same pieces for his or her audience and posts them online, he is infringing on the “collective works” copyright. If the singer uses some type of creative process to select the pieces, it can be protected by copyright.

A copyright owner can dedicate work to the public domain, or it can become a public work when the copyright expires. Two other ways for works to become public are when the owner does not follow the rules to renew a work properly or copyright laws do not apply to a certain type of work.

If you have ever seen movies of the same name but with different storylines, no law has been broken because titles of movies and books cannot be copyrighted. Additionally, ideas, theories, facts and short phrases such as “make my day” do not qualify for copyright protection.

Due to changing copyright laws and time periods covered by a copyright, you should research anything you wish to use in the public domain and ensure it is not protected. The artist is not always the copyright owner, and only the owner can dedicate a work to the public use.

This information on the public domain is general in nature and is not intended to be considered legal advice.