Everything in Life isn’t Free, but Public Domain is

Unlike the two proverbial constants in life, death and taxes, copyright protections do, in fact, end. When they cease, works pass into what is called the public domain, and may be used by anyone.

public domainThough there are some exceptions, works in the public domain can be freely sampled, copied and used in any way a musician, filmmaker, writer or any other sort of entertainment producer so chooses. In entertainment law, the concept of public domain is important, due to the frequency with which certain forms of art are recycled for new generations. Works are either ineligible for copyright protection from the start, or their copyrights “die” and they slip into the public domain.

Works that are immediately entered into public domain

First, here is a list of the sorts of works that are entered into the public domain immediately:

  • U.S. government documents
  • State judicial opinions
  • legislation
  • unadorned ideas and facts
  • blank forms
  • short phrases
  • names, titles and slogans
  • extemporaneous speeches
  • standard plots and stock characters

How published works enter into public domain

However, as mentioned before, some works enter the public domain when their copyrights die. There are different rules for when a copyright should expire, depending on whether a work was created before or after Jan. 1, 1978.

Works created prior to that date have a copyright lifespan of 75 years. A number of rule changes have affected the length of copyrights for works created before 1978. The life of copyrights created prior to this year is currently 95 years. Many of these works had to be renewed in order to be eligible for this full lifespan. If any work created between 1923 and 1963 was not properly renewed once the time came, then it fell into public domain. However, if they were renewed, the earliest created works – from 1923 – are now protected until Jan. 1, 2019. Any work published between 1964 and 1978, meanwhile, has been granted automatic renewal.

Then there are the rules for works created after Jan. 1, 1978. Previously, anything published after this date was eligible for copyright protections for the life of the author – the longest-living author in cases where there was more than one – plus 50 years. That has been extended to the life of the author plus 70 years. Nothing created after 1978 will fall into the public domain until the mid-21st century at the earliest.

In addition to lapsing into the public domain, some works may have been purposely placed there. A nonprofit organization called Creative Commons helps authors of all sorts of published works move their creations to the public domain to help foster growth of the archive of unprotected creations.

There are a number of archives that list works that have entered into the public domain, for any entertainment producers interested in working with previously published works available for sampling and reinterpretation. If you’re looking for more information on copyrights or when works enter public domain, consult a knowledgeable entertainment attorney.

Email this to someoneShare on LinkedIn3Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Tumblr0Share on Reddit0

Anthony R. Caruso is a business transactional attorney in New York and New Jersey with experience in structuring, negotiation and completion of legal deals involving business, entrepreneurs, athletes and performers.

Comments are closed.