The public domain includes all creations that are not protected by intellectual property laws. Once a creation enters the public domain, anyone can use it, for any reason, without the need for permission. It belongs to the world.
A work can enter the public domain for a number of reasons including the following:
- The duration of the copyright has expired: In most countries, if a work is created by an individual, it is protected for the lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years. If it is created anonymously, pseudonymously, and for hire, it is protected for 95 years from the date of publication – or 120 years from the date of creation – whichever is shorter. Once the copyright expires, no intellectual property exists, so the creation enters the public domain.
- The copyright owner places it there deliberately before the copyright expires.
- The copyright owner fails to follow copyright renewal rules: The need for a copyright renewal depends on when the work was first copyrighted. Works created after 1978, are not subject to renewal registration. In 1992, copyright laws were amended, making renewal registration optional for works between 1964 and 1977. Only works originally copyrighted between 1923 and 1964 need to file a renewal application and pay a renewal fee in order to remain copyright protected.
- The work isn’t fixed in a tangible form: Any work that hasn’t been written or recorded by its creator, it isn’t protected by copyright and therefore belongs to the public domain.
As copyright laws may vary among countries, always have in mind that, if a work is in the public domain in one country, that doesn’t mean that it is in the public domain everywhere in the world.
For example, the duration of copyright protection may be different among countries. Although a work may be in the public domain in the US, somewhere else in the world it may still be protected by copyright.