Copyright’s Public Domain
by Lydia Loren
Let’s face it, copyright can be a counter-intuitive mess. From figuring out the boundaries of the “fair use” doctrine, to understanding why certain sound recordings are protected under federal law (those made on or after February 15, 1972) and some are protected, if at all, under state law (those made prior to 2/15/72), copyright can be a real pain.
A fundamental aspect of copyright protection is that it is time-limited. Copyright protection expires. The U.S. Constitution requires that copyright (and patent) protection be for “limited times” (Art. 1, sec. 8 cl.8). This limitation on copyright is important — it allows new artists to use older works any way they want without needing to obtain permission from anyone. When a work is no longer protected by copyright, we say that the work is in the “public domain.”
Many older works are in the public domain and thus free for anyone to use in any way. But, over time, figuring out whether a work is in the public domain has become an exceedingly complicated task. There are some bright lines. For example, any work first published prior to 1923 is in the public domain. Also, any work of U.S. origin published prior to January 1, 1964 is also in the public domain unless a renewal registration was filed with the United States Copyright Office. But, even beyond these bright rules, there are lots more works that are in the public domain for a variety of other reasons.
Now, there is a helpful guide to sorting all of this out — complete with colorful flow-charts and graphics. Published by the Samuelson Clinic at UC Berkeley, it provides all the details you might want. Check out The Public Domain Handbook.