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What is Public Domain?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Public domain is any type of work that is not currently protected by a copyright. There is a wide range of products that fall into this category. They may include intellectual property that was previously covered by a copyright as well as works that were specifically designed as for the general use of the public, and were never covered by a copyright.

There are often references to books and other printed matter that has entered public domain. What this means is that while the printed works were at one time copyrighted and therefore considered the intellectual property of the author and publisher, that is no longer the case. In many cases, the work is no longer in print by the original publisher, the author is deceased, and the copyright was allowed to expire. In effect, the work is no longer owned by a person or entity. When no ownership can be established, the work is considered to be in the public domain.

Along with printed matter, the same general principle applies to early motion pictures that were made before 1922, or were produced by studios that no longer exist. When there is no evidence that someone today is the beneficiary of those works and can reasonably claim ownership of the films, they are considered to be in the public domain. This means that anyone can obtain a copy of the film and reproduce multiple copies for sale without infringing on the rights of anyone.

In addition to works that were once copyrighted but no longer enjoy that status, there are works intentionally created for general public use. Some government documents are an excellent example of this type of product. Unless there are disclaimers to the contrary, government documents are understood to be accessible and usable by everyone, without the need to observe a copyright. Generally, however, it is anticipated that if a section of the document is quoted, the quote will be referenced properly.

As a broad definition, public domain materials are any form of knowledge that is freely available to the general public, and carries no restrictions on the use of the materials. Books, movies, and other forms of printed matter are all common examples of public domain information, but essentially any device that previously enjoyed a copyright but is no longer covered would be considered to be in the public domain.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including MyLawQuestions, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Jun 29, 2012

@anon268727 - I believe it depends on how old the graves are and who owns the graveyard and what country you're in as well. If the graveyard is private property, then any photos you take there and use commercially have to be with the permission of the people who own the graveyard, I believe (although I'm not 100% sure so double check on that). People are often surprised by this, but even privately owned gardens and parks, which might be open to the public, can stop people from publishing photos taken on their property.

If the graveyard is considered public property, as many older graveyards are, then I think it would be OK to take photos of any graves that are old enough for the artwork on them to have expired copyright. Often in older graves they used unique sculptures which would have just as much right to copyright as any other piece.

There are quite a few photography forums that would have people who know more about this than I do, so maybe you could ask at one of them for clarification?

By KoiwiGal — On Jun 28, 2012

I know it's easy to say now, but I like to think that if I ever become a more wealthy and famous author than I am today, that I will be willing to put some of my work into the public domain. I think that people who do that are really amazing. I know that the Calvin and Hobbes comics are in the public domain through a conscious choice of the man who wrote and illustrated them (and I'm sure he still makes plenty of money).

And I think once you've got enough to live on comfortably, then there's no real need to keep making money. I mean, what would you do with it, aside from spending it on ridiculous things that you don't need? Better to put it back into the community, I think.

By anon268727 — On May 15, 2012

So properties (i.e. cemeteries) cannot be considered public domain? I am asking as to the legality of taking photographs of old graves for historical purposes.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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