This page deals
with the public domain - ownership by everyone and no
one - into which works pass because the period of protection
has ceased or because they have a special status, for
example US government publications.
It also points to resources for identifying whether a
work is in copyright, for example the WATCH database.
Those resources are discussed in more detail here.
Works enter the public domain in three ways:
become common property when the period of protection
on copying and distribution have never been made, for
example in publications of the US government
copyright owner explicitly relinquishes rights.
Australian perspective is Matthew Rimmer's 2003 article
The Dead Poets Society: The Copyright Term and The
As preceding pages and the Intellectual
Property guide have suggested, the copyright regimes in
Australia and overseas provide some protection for the
'repackaging' of public domain content.
The extent of that protection and its duration varies
considerably from regime to regime. A straight facsimile
of a public domain book would generally not gain copyright
protection for the publisher or photographer. However,
there would be protection for editorial apparatus such
as footnotes, an introduction, choice of words and even
typographic layout - all of which might be regarded as
expressions of creativity. While William Shakespeare,
for example, is long dead and his writing is in the public
domain, editors and publishers enjoy some protection for
their editions of Much Ado About Nothing and other
As we have noted in discussing
the museum 'reprographic right' US courts have been reluctant
to provide extensive copyright protection for photographic
reproductions of public domain images.
The New York court decision
in the Bridgeman v Corel case, for example, involved
claims that Canadian software company Corel had breached
the copyright of The Bridgeman Art Library (a UK British
company that licenses transparencies of public domain
artwork owned by museums) by including those 'Bridgeman'
images on a Corel CD.
The court disagreed, endorsing Corel's claim that Bridgeman
had no copyright to the individual images because those
images were in the public domain and Bridgeman's transparencies
lacked the original authorship required by US copyright
law. That decision has, however, been criticised in the
UK, particularly by museums, and caution is desirable.
One rule of thumb is that work is in the public domain
in the US if it was -
created by the federal government, at any time
published in the US between 1964-1977 without a copyright
in the US between 1923-1963
with a copyright notice, if the copyright was not renewed
when the initial term expired
in the US between 1923-1963
without a copyright notice
in the US before 1923.
Renewal, Copyright Restoration, and the Difficulty of
Determining Copyright Status' by Peter Hirtle in 14(7)
D-Lib (2008) warns
about simplistic application of that rule.