What is the Public Domain?

During the course of my lifetime I’ve seen cataclysmic upheavals in the law dealing with “intellectual property” monopolies.  This isn’t like the Law of Gravity, these monopoly restrictions on our culture exist only through the imposition of man made laws.  The fluidity of the jargon and legal terminology make it extremely difficult for most people to understand copyright issues.

Since additions to copyright are only made possible by removals from the Public Domain, any change in copyright law makes the Public Domain equally confusing.  It’s no wonder most of us aren’t entirely sure what the Public Domain is.

This excellent definition clearly explains what is included in today’s “Public Domain.”

The Public Domain - No Copyright

A work is considered to be in the public domain when it is not under copyright for one of several reasons:

  • It may never have been under copyright;
  • it may have passed out of copyright; or
  • rights to claim copyright in the work may have been forfeited.
  • Also, works created by the U.S. government do not have copyright protection.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “public domain” as “the condition of being free from copyright or patent and, hence, open to use by anyone.”

— Kristin Kelly, “Images of Works of Art in Museum Collections: The Experience of
Open Access”

In other words, you can legally use everything in the Public Domain for anything you want to do with it, including making money, without having to ask permission of anyone, or pay anyone royalties.

The public domain belongs to all of us, equally.

Even with the erosion wreaked by copyright law, the Public Domain remains an incredibly rich cultural resource. For more information, my “Free Culture” page includes links to many Public Domain resources.

The Public Domain definition quoted above is an excerpt from “Images of Works of Art in Museum Collections: The Experience of Open Access” Prepared for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation by Kristin Kelly June 2013 which the Council on Library and Information Resources made available under the terms
of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license,

The Public Domain – No Copyright symbol I’ve used above has itself been deeded to the public domain by its creator, Caroline Léna Becker. Merci!


4 thoughts on “What is the Public Domain?

  1. The ‘public domain’ is not a useful concept – however useful a term it may be to those who believe in copyright’s abridgement of the public’s liberty, to describe those works not ‘protected’ by copyright.

    Liberty is the useful concept.

    If an individual has a work in their possession, that was not obtained through burglary, then they are at liberty to do anything they want with it. Not forgetting that, ceteris paribus, this liberty excludes that which deceives (impairs another’s apprehension of the truth), or jeopardises the life of another.

    • I think I’ve learned more about copyright and rights in general from you than anyone, so I’m sorry to have to disagree with you on this one, Crosbie. In Canada when people assert their liberty as you suggest we run the risk of breaking the law, which carries increasingly draconian consequences. While it is true that some copyright martyrs may provide good examples that may lead to the abolition of copyright law, I would rather warn people away from such risks and any further loss of liberty that may ensue.

      Liberty is indeed the useful concept, but is even more powerful when the modern concept of the “public domain” is employed to usefully demonstrate its loss. It is crucial for people to understand the concept of the public domain as it was before the first copyright monopoly existed, and to further be aware of how and why the ghost of the public domain we are left with is shrinking if we are to understand the issue. Understanding that modern copyright’s incursions into the public domain every time some new “protection” is retroactively helps people see the liberty that is being lost. Here in Canada our new copyright law makes it illegal to circumvent DRM for any reason, even to access public domain works in our possession. In Europe the absurd “sweat of the brow” doctrine has been accepted and is routinely used by Galleries, Libraries, Archive and Museums to assert copyright over works that have been forever in the public domain simply by scanning them.

      Every person who says “I can do what I want to, I can circumvent DRM, so it doesn’t affect me” doesn’t care if the law is changed or not — until the law is dropped on their head. Every person who doesn’t vote because the electoral system is unfair ensures that bad laws — benefiting only special interests at the expense of the public — will continue to be made and enforced.

      When the law is an ass, it needs to be changed, or abolished, not flouted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.