Generally speaking all works eventually fall out of copyright and when they do they enter that vast commons of shared material called the “public domain”. However, different countries have different laws about when this happens (in this sense there can be seen, at some level, to actually be many different ‘public domains’). Also, digital copies of these public domain works sometimes have copyright attached to them (or restrictions applied on their use), regardless of the fact that the underlying work is in the public domain. Rights and licenses applying to public domain works can therefore be divided into two broad categories:
- The rights status of the underlying work, by which is meant the actual original work itself (the words of a book, the actual physical painting or drawing, a musical score, etc).
- The rights status of the digital copy, by which is meant the digital reproduction of this original work (the scan, photograph, digitisation etc., i.e. the medium by which the underlying work makes its way onto screens and the internet).
ON THE UNDERLYING WORK
Laws dictating when works fall into the public domain vary all over the world, and as such there occur situations where a work is considered to be public domain in one country but not another. On The Public Domain Review we try to feature mostly work which is in the public domain worldwide, but we do also feature works which have this partial or ‘hybrid’ public domain status, that is they are considered public domain in some countries but not all. Below is a summary of the different kinds of rights most relevant to our content. Please note that these should be seen as our best approximations and not by any means as the final legal word on a work’s status. If re-using material we highly encourage you to investigate further. In some cases it will be simple, in some it will not!
Works on our site labelled with this are deemed by us to be in the public domain worldwide and so free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights. This means you would be able to copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission. This can generally be said to be true of all works created or published prior to 1850. From this date, as we move forward in time, getting closer and closer to the present day, the status will start to vary according to the idiosyncrasies of copyright law in different jurisdictions. These public doman works are often denoted by the Creative Commons Public Domain Mark.
Works on our site labelled with this are deemed by us to be in the public domain in countries which follow a copyright term of “life plus 70 years”: that is, for countries which state that a work will fall in to the public domain 70 years after the death of the work’s creator. This applies to most European Union members, Brazil, Israel, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, and many more. Other countries apply a variant on this “life plus 70 years” years format, stipulating a different length of time post-mortem, for example 50 years (Barbados), or 100 years (Mexico). Works labelled with “PD 70 years” may well be public domain in other countries which don’t follow the 70 years rule, particularly in instances where the country follows the rule of the “shorter term” or where there are specific bilateral agreements in place between countries. Check out Wikipedia’s list of copyright lengths by country for a useful starter guide.
Works on our site labelled with this are deemed by us to be in the public domain in countries which follow a copyright term of “life plus 50 years”: that is, for countries which state that a work will fall into the public domain 50 years after the death of the work’s creator. This applies to many countries around the world including Canada, Australia (for pre 1955 deaths) and many countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. Check out Wikipedia’s list of copyright lengths by country for a useful starter guide.
Works on our site labelled with this are deemed by us to be in the public domain in the U.S. The U.S. uses a different system to the “life plus x years” method – working partially from a “cut off date model”, with lots of other factors involved based on when, or if at all, copyright was renewed. Works published prior to 1923 are generally considered to be in the public domain. U.S. copyright law is very complicated, with lots of complexities arising via interactions between state and federal law, so, even more than with our other labels, take this to be very much an approximation which would need further investigation. Works labelled with this may well be public domain in other countries which don’t follow the 70 years rule, particularly in instances where the country follows the rule of the “shorter term” or where there are specific bilateral agreements in place between countries.
Works on our site labelled with this are deemed by us to be in the public domain on account of them being the product of a government employee of those countries which place such works, either immediately or after a designated time period, into the public domain. The main example is the U.S. Government: a work prepared by an officer or employee of the U.S. government as part of that person’s official duties is automatically public domain, at least as it applies in the U.S. (Be aware that copyright might be claimed in other jurisdictions). Another example is in the case of works made by an employee of the U.K. government which fall under “Crown Copyright”. Such works, which have been published, have a copyright expiring 50 years from date of publication – and this applies worldwide. Please make sure you check the source to see which particular Government law applies to the work.
Works on our site labelled with this are thought by the institution which houses them to be free of copyright restrictions, normally based on a lack of information rather than a presence of proof. It is a very popular label applied to photographic works found in Flickr: The Commons. Be careful if re-using such works, particularly in the case of photographs, as they may be subject to other third party rights, such as rights of privacy and rights of publicity.
ON THE DIGITAL COPY
If digital copies on our site are labelled with this it implies that the digitising institution is allowing you to copy, distribute and transmit the copy, to adapt the copy, and to make commercial use of the copy, providing that you attribute the copy in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Often denoted by the Creative Commons CC-BY license. To see in which way attribution is to be done you should visit the institution’s website itself and find the page stipulating their Terms or Conditions of Use.
If digital copies on our site are labelled with this it implies that the digitising institution is allowing you to copy, distribute and transmit the copy, to adapt the copy, and to make commercial use of the copy, providing that you attribute the copy in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). If you alter, transform, or build upon the copy, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Often denoted by the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA license
If digital copies on our site are labelled with this it means that, although the digitising institution may assert restrictions on use, the Wikimedia Foundation asserts that the digital copy is in the public domain, at least in the U.S. where the law tends to lean in their favour. The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that “faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain, and that claims to the contrary represent an assault on the very concept of a public domain”. Please be aware that depending on local laws, re-use of this content may be prohibited or restricted in your jurisdiction. Although we commend Wikimedia greatly in their project, and hence featured a lot of such material in the early days of The Public Domain Review‘s existence, we have decided to not feature such works in the future and only focus on those digital copies which have been explicitly opened up by the digitising institution.