What Is Public Domain and What Does It Mean?

The term public domain is heard on a regular basis, but what does that even mean? It is a legal term that essentially applies to works like books, audio recordings, and films. It means that there no copyright.

Some people confuse public domain to mean that any work that is no longer under a copyright is free and does not cost anything. Public domain has nothing to do with cost. It has to do with ownership of intellectual property.

When it comes to creative works or any work that a person crafted on their own, it is their ideas or intellectual property that must be protected. This is so that no one else can claim that they wrote a song like “Yesterday” by the Beatles and pass it off as something they created. That just would not be fair to the people who really wrote it using their own ideas.

Laws developed over time to protect this type of property and intellectual property law is the branch of law that covers this area. When a person creates a work they usually either have to copyright it or they should. A person does not have to be a famous artist or singer to copyright something. It is a form of legal protection to keep the work from getting copied as described above.

Copyrights do expire. For books, the copyright stays in effect until the author dies and 70 more years pass. Once this time is up, that author’s work enters the not-so-mysterious world of public domain. Some works fall out of copyright if the creator does not renew a copyright.

There are some occasions where the creator of a particular work decide to let his or her copyright go. They want it to fall into public domain as a gift to those who wish to enjoy their work. When a work is in public domain, it means that you can copy portions of it in print, for example, without having to obtain copyright permission.

You can, for instance, reprint a book online in its entirety as long as it has become public domain. This does not mean you can go around claiming you wrote it. But, then again, most people probably would get suspicious if you told them you penned “Treasure Island.” Either way, works that are in public domain have expired copyrights which can make them easier to obtain and enjoy.

Here are a few examples:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

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