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What does "out of Copyright" Mean?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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The term “out of copyright” typically indicates that a work of art that would normally be protected by copyright laws and regulations is no longer or was never covered by a copyright. Such items are typically referred to as “public domain” and can be freely used, quoted, displayed, and broadcast for commercial and non-commercial purposes. It is important to note, however, that though the text in a book may no longer be protected by copyright, a specific volume of work may be protected as a physical work. The time it takes for a work to be out of copyright depends on the nature of the work and the country in which it was created, though 70 years after the death of the copyright holder is a common time frame.

Once a work of art or other creation is out of copyright, then it is no longer protected by copyright laws and is considered a work of the public domain. This is typically the case for many older works of art, such as plays and literature written hundreds or thousands of years ago. A piece of artwork that is part of the public domain can be used freely by others, derivative works can be created from it without infringing on an existing copyright, and it can be performed or displayed publicly.

The laws regarding a work that is out of copyright are somewhat complicated, however, so care should be taken by anyone wishing to use an older work of art or literature. A book that was written hundreds of years ago is typically out of copyright and exists as public domain that can be freely used. Modern reprints or translations of this work, however, may be protected by a copyright as a specific volume. This means that though someone can legally use the words contained in a book that is out of copyright, any physical copy of the work could be protected, and it could not be photocopied legally.

Copyright protection of a work of art or similar creation begins at the moment it is created, regardless of registration of the work with any country or organization. This protection typically extends for a certain period of time, which can vary depending on when and where the work was created. In general, modern works are protected for the lifespan of the author or copyright holder, plus an additional 70 years beyond the copyright holder's death. Works that are anonymous or published under a pseudonym typically do not go out of copyright until 95 years after initial publication or 120 years after the work was created, whichever is first.

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