Public Domain

The term public domain has two senses of meaning. Anything published is out in the public domain in the sense that it is available to the public. Once published, news and information in books are in the public domain, although they may also be copyrighted. In the sense of intellectual property, works in the public domain are those whose exclusive intellectual property rights have expired,[2] have been forfeited,[3] have been expressly waived, or are inapplicable. For example, the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, and most of the early silent films, are all now in the public domain by either being created before copyrights existed or leaving the copyright term. Examples for works not covered by copyright which are therefore in the public domain, are the formulae of Newtonian physics, cooking recipes, and all software before 1974. Examples for works actively dedicated into public domain by their authors are reference implementations of cryptographic algorithms, NIH's ImageJ, and the CIA's World Factbook. The term is not normally applied to situations where the creator of a work retains residual rights, in which case use of the work is referred to as "under license" or "with permission".

As rights are country-based and vary, a work may be subject to rights in one country and be in the public domain in another. Some rights depend on registrations on a country-by-country basis, and the absence of registration in a particular country, if required, creates public domain status for a work in that country.


The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.

An important wrinkle to understand about public domain material is that, while each work belongs to the public, collections of public domain works may be protected by copyright. If, for example, someone has collected public domain images in a book or on a website, the collection as a whole may be protectable even though individual images are not. You are free to copy and use individual images but copying and distributing the complete collection may infringe what is known as the “collective works” copyright. Collections of public domain material will be protected if the person who created it has used creativity in the choices and organization of the public domain material. This usually involves some unique selection process, for example, a poetry scholar compiling a book—The Greatest Poems of e.e. cummings.

There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

the copyright has expired
the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
copyright law does not protect this type of work.

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