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What Is the Public Domain on the Internet?

Some people hold the mistaken idea that anything on the Internet is available for public use. This is not correct. Content published on the Internet has the same copyright protections offered to any other published material. What makes the Internet more tricky is that people from all over the globe publish on the Internet and consume its content. But some works are definitely available without restrictions, and these are called public domain works. "Public domain" refers to works not protected by copyright law. For example, Project Gutenberg is a repository of public-domain books that aims to make them easily accessible to all Internet users.

What Is the Public Domain?

The phrase "public domain" isn't mentioned in the Copyright Act of 1976, the document that sets forth most copyright protections in the United States. However, it's a widely used phrase that describes any type of content that isn't currently protected by copyright. Anyone can use works in the public domain without asking or paying the original copyright owner.

How Do Works Enter the Public Domain?

Works enter the public domain in several different ways. For example, books published in the United States are only protected by copyright for 70 years after the death of the author. Any work solely created by the federal government is automatically in the public domain as well. The only exception is works created by government freelancers or consultants. Unpublished works such as speeches or improvised comedy aren't protected, either. Also, any work published before March 1, 1989, that didn't include a proper copyright notice automatically fell into the public domain. Works that weren't original upon publication also fall into the public domain.

Examples of Public-Domain Works

Examples of public-domain works include those that:

  • Have expired copyrights
  • Were made by the U.S. government
  • Are not original enough to be protected by copyrights
  • Have not been published in any tangible form

Some very high-profile works have entered the public domain after their copyrights expired. The copyright on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby expired in 2021, 94 years after the publication of the novel and 70 years after the death of the author. Since it entered the public domain, several other authors have written novels based on the characters. For example, one novel tells the story of Gatsby from the perspective of Daisy Buchanan.

Once a fictional work is part of the public domain, other writers, artists, and creators can use the characters, plots, and themes of the work for their own purposes. However, it's important to remember that there are nuances that may still protect parts of a product. For example, consider an annotated version of Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain's text is in the public domain, but any prefaces, afterwords, annotations, or footnotes in that version would still be protected by copyright law.

Adaptation of Public-Domain Works

Most adaptations of works in the public domain are protected under copyright as a new, original works. Adaptations include updated versions, translations, and versions with annotations or other additional materials. But adaptations of works in the public domain must take care to only use the portions of the work that fall under the public domain. For example, the original Winnie the Pooh book entered the public domain in 2023. Does that mean all versions of the character Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood are now up for grabs? Absolutely not. Tigger, for example, didn't appear in that first published work. And Pooh didn't wear his iconic red shirt until a decade after his first appearance. There are also issues with copyright for the famous bear because Disney bought the rights to the character back in the 1960s and holds the trademark on the name "Winnie the Pooh" and his image in Disney works. That hasn't stopped adaptations from hitting the market, however. One of the first works released after the copyright expired was a horror movie based on the character.

Public Domain in Other Countries

Different countries operate under different copyright laws. Just because something still falls under copyright protection in the United States doesn't mean it's protected elsewhere, and just because it's in the public domain in the United States doesn't mean it has the same copyright status in India, France, or Canada. Some countries only honor the copyright of a work for 50 years after the death of the creator, while this protection extends for 70 years in the United States. This can cause issues on the Internet, where a work is uploaded in a country where it is in the public domain but then accessed by users in countries where the work is still protected by an active copyright.

Additional Reading on the Public Domain, Copyrights, and Trademarks

David Dungan

Dave is a digital marketing manager at Qualtrics and writes on a wide range of topics aimed at providing useful information to our diverse audience. He lives in Dublin, Ireland and is an avid martial arts, sports, music, and technology enthusiast.

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