How to Distinguish Public Domain Works From Copyrighted Materials

The objective of this article is to teach you how to accurately identify and discern Public Domain media from copyrighted works. I also hope that this article will enlighten you on how useful and worthwhile are these open source collection. We also urge you to promote its welfare and protect its heritage.

Laws on Public Domain Differ among Countries

Please note that this article is mostly in relation to the free content from the United States. Laws regarding copyright and intellectual properties vary across countries and regions. What is regarded as open source content in the US may not be so in other states or areas.

Public Domain Basics

In the United States, Public Domain belongs to what is commonly referred to as “copyright bargain.” Authors of all media (written, music, video, images, etc.) are only given a collection of exclusive rights only for a limited number of years. This is the limited time window by which they can be capitalize and enjoy all the privileges that their creative works entails. After this period lapses, their works automatically enter the free content classification which makes it available for anyone to use for whatever reason. At this point, the author or their legal successor loses exclusive control and profit from the works.

The US Constitution

The US Constitution states that: “The Congress shall have the Power… To promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article I, section 8, clause 8)

Purpose of Copyright Protection

The objective of Copyright is to “Promote the progress” of education, to encourage ingenuity and improvement. Free intellectual content is an important ingredient in the development of a society. Authors are assured of protection to benefit from their works and to encourage them to produce more. But after this considerable timeframe, others are also given the chance to build and work on their original works and derive new ones. Thus, the author, practically contributes to history and the human civilization as a whole. Under most circumstances, the original creators are still acknowledged even in the derivative works.

The Public Domain Criteria

Works with expired copyrights are not the only ones belonging in the Public Domain. A material is considered part of Open Source territory and available for public use if:

  • The content was never qualified for a copyright in the first place; or
  • The copyright owner failed to meet the copyright requirements which makes it void; or
  • The content owner intended the material for Public Domain and has renounced ownership over it.

The US Copyright Act of 1978

The current Copyright Act was ratified in 1978. The copyright period for content published before 1978 was 75 years starting from the publication date prior to 1998. This translates to the yearly addition into Public Domain of any work published before 1978 until everything eventually ended up for public use. But in 1998, the US Congress enacted measures to restrict Public Domain for another 20 years.

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