Public Domain Guide

Public domain works are copyright free. Find out how you can reproduce text, images, audio, and video without having to pay for them.

Creators and inventors prevent others from copying or using their work without payment through copyrights, patents, and registered trademarks. Without protection for the creators, allowing them to assert ownership, anyone could copy their work and no one would ever hire artists or writers. A lack of protection would also make people reluctant to share their work and it would be impossible for them to charge for access.

No copyright or patent is eternal. Those intellectual property rights expire. Once the protection period has terminated, that idea or work can’t be re-protected. It then becomes free to all. This status is known as the “public domain.” Without any copyright protection, a book can be reprinted or copied by anyone. Similarly, when a patent expires, any business can use that invention without paying the inventor.

New public domain material

Not all countries recognize patents and many that have pledged to uphold intellectual property rights don’t enforce their infringement laws. In many parts of the world, copyright exists automatically. Not all creators decide to enforce the copyrights on all of their works.

These factors create confusion over what can be reproduced and what can’t.

Inventors are less likely to leave their inventions unpatented because there will probably be a high value to it once others are blocked from using the new design without paying. In the case of artists, it can be a good idea to leave work unprotected to spread examples of their work throughout the world. This is a good promotional strategy and may lead to high-paying commissions in the future.

Public domain software

The software industry has public domain products. However, they use different terminology. If a program is distributed in a compiled format, its code is not visible to anyone but the developer. However, the program is still free to use, so it is called “freeware.” When programming is also made available, it is called “open source.”

A number of important internet-related systems are free to use; these include the Apache Web Server, httpd, and Ping.

Public domain technical specifications

Networking, internet, and telecommunication designs are published in a similar manner to the disclosure requirements for patent protection. However, these technical specifications aren’t protected from copying. Few people realize that the designs for very important internet systems are freely available to everyone.

These plans are called protocols and the logic behind making them free to access is that communications software has to be built on a common standard. A program designed to send messages over the internet wouldn’t be any use if no other software was able to receive those messages.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is in charge of publishing standards on the physical specifications for networking and the internet. These include the group of standards that define Wi-Fi and the definition of network cabling systems, called Ethernet.

The Telecommunication Industry Association produces standards and specifications for cable types and these are all made publicly available so any cable manufacturer can produce products according to their specification. The TIA also publishes the designs and layout for cable jacks and sockets and makes them freely available in the public domain.

The largest library of networking and internet protocols is made available to all by the Internet Engineering Taskforce. All public domain designs published by the IETF are called “Requests of Comments” and they are identified by a unique serial number, prepended with the letters RFC.

Not all internet and communication systems are in the public domain. For example, the design for Skype is a proprietary standard that is owned by Microsoft and kept secret.

Copyright conventions

Copyright law covers creative works, whereas patent law protects inventions, industrial systems, and research processes.

The length of time a piece of work is protected by copyright varies from country to country and the laws have changed over time. When a law changes the length of time a piece is protected, those new rules only apply to works copyrighted after the date that the law becomes active.

In most cases, the copyright period extends for a number of years after the creator’s death. This is the main principle laid out in an international agreement on copyright, called the Berne Convention, which was agreed to in 1989 and has been signed by most of the countries in the world. At the end of that period, the protected work moves into the public domain.

The standard length of copyright is 50 years after the death of the creator, though some categories have shorter periods – for art, it is 25 years after death. Each country can lengthen the standard period of protection.

In the USA, the EU, Australia, and Russia, the standard copyright period is 70 years after the death of the creator; in Mexico, the standard period extends to 100 years after the creator’s death.

Creative Commons

Public domain rules for digital media are managed by a system called Creative Commons. This is the third option for creators who want to distribute work freely and is a blend of both copyrighting and public domain.

In many countries, copyright protection is applied automatically, so in order to make it clear that the work can be used freely, the creator declares the work to be available under one of the Creative Commons standards. With a CC license, the creator retains ownership but allows usage under certain conditions. These options have codes to identify them. They are:

  • CC0 – In the public domain; completely free to use.
  • CC BY – Free to use by all as long as the creator is cited.
  • CC BY-SA – Free to use by all with a citation to the creator; alterations to the work must be registered under a CC BY-SA license.
  • CC BY-NC – Free to use for non-commercial purposes; the creator must be cited.
  • CC BY-NC-SA – Free for non-commercial use if the creator is given a credit and any adaptations must be registered under the same CC license standard.
  • CC BY-ND – Free to use by all as long as the creator is cited; the piece cannot be altered in any way.
  • CC BY-NC-ND – Free to use for non-commercial purposes as long as the creator is cited; the piece cannot be altered in any way.
Written by: Luke Pensworth

Luke is the managing editor and site manager of Dailywireless. As a wireless enthusiast/consumer, he reviews a lot of services based on his own experience. Disgruntled as he may be, he tries to keep his articles as honest as possible.

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