There are two general and broad categories of authored material. While the first category is copyrighted and therefore legally protected and owned by an individual or group, the second category is considered the property of the public domain and is open to either limited or unlimited use by the public. The material in question might be a written piece of work, a choreographed dance recording, a work of drama, a computer program or an architectural design. There a number of different factors that go into determining whether something is considered to be in the public or private domain. Here’s what you need to know.
Who Owns Works in the Public Domain?
While the owner of a private work holds the copyright and legal claims over that piece, there is no formal owner of a work in the public domain. Essentially, it is owned by the public at large. Of course, every public work still has a creator who was behind its inception. The original author of the work may have intentionally relinquished their legal rights to the piece, unintentionally given up their ownership by neglecting to obtain or renew a copyright or simply may have passed away.
How Does a Work Get Into the Public Domain?
A recorded work may arrive in the public domain through one of several channels. If an original copyright expires and is not renewed, then that piece enters the public domain and is no longer privately owned. Alternatively, if an author never chooses to file for a copyright of their work, then their material will likely end up as public property.
An owner of a work may also generously choose to donate their piece to the public realm. This is the case with many open source images, clip art and photographs that can be found online. In order to be unprotected in this way, an author must explicitly state that their work is public property.
Because copyright protection is for a limited amount of time only, it is important to keep these regulations in mind when it comes to expiration dates.
- Works published before 1923 are in the public domain, as their original copyrights have already expired.
- If something was published and copyrighted between 1923 and 1964 and renewed in its 28th year, it is copyrighted for 95 years after it was granted protection.
- If material was published and copyrighted between 1964 and 1977, it is copyrighted for 95 years after it was granted protection.
- If something was published after 1978 by one author, it is copyrighted for the length of the author’s life plus 70 years. If it has multiple authors, it is copyrighted for the length of the longest surviving author’s life plus 70 years.
- If a work was published between the beginning of 1978 and the end of 2002, the copyright lasts at least until 2047.
- If something was anonymously authored or made for hire, it is copyrighted for 95 years from its publication date or 120 years from its creation date, whichever comes first.
- Material that was never copyrighted but was published between 1923 and 1977 or between 1978 and March 1, 1979, it is in the public domain unless there is a lawful exception.
- If an audio recording was published between February 15, 1972, and 1978, or between 1978 and March 1, 1979, it is considered expired if it doesn’t hold a copyright or registration.
As you can see, there are specific rules and regulations that govern how and when a work may slip into the public domain. If you are an author and wish to maintain sole rights to your material, make sure to obtain copyrights and renew them before their dates of expiration in order to legally claim private ownership of your work.
The content on our website is only meant to provide general information and is not legal advice. We make our best efforts to make sure the information is accurate, but we cannot guarantee it. Do not rely on the content as legal advice. For assistance with legal problems or for a legal inquiry please contact you attorney.