What does 'public domain' mean?

To have something ‘in the Public domain’ is to have something available to access by the general public. It is also a legal phrase which refers to something that has reached the end of it’s period of copyright and is now available to use in anyway someone wishes. A good example of something in the public domain, which also has copyright implications might be a book of fairy tales. The tale itself is public domain and could be reproduced as you wished, but an ebook that someone has written containing the fairy tales would be covered by copyright. This is because it is possible to also copyright layout and style.

Copyright begins with the work (a photo, an article, etc.) and continues right through the creators life plus 75 years (remember the Berne Convention!). Only then is that work in the “public domain”. So anyone who simply creates a website with 100’s of photos they have copied from another site will definitely be infringing copyrights. However, there is nothing to stop you putting up photo’s you have taken yourself even if they happen to be of the same or a similar subject. Do remember though, that if you have taken photo’s of people you need to be sure that you have their permission, though a model release form, to put their photo onto your website – or on any other item for that matter. It is possible to create works that are in the public domain, for instance the images I use on 100000pounds.com are public domain images, that I have purchased the right to use from the creator. In some cases I have purchased an extended right to use the image as well – for instance on tee-shirts!

The Public Domain is made up of all sorts of work, that for whatever reason, aren’t protected by copyright and such creations are free to use without permission. They include:

  • originally non-copyrightable
  • expired copyright
  • authored by the Federal Government
  • specifically granted to the Public Domain
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