Public Domain Works

Intellectual Property
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Public domain works refers to intellectual property that is not owned by anyone. The term indicates that these properties are therefore “public”, and available for anyone to use. The public domain can be defined in contrast to copyright, trademarks or patents. Furthermore, the laws of various countries define the scope of the public domain differently, making it necessary to specify which jurisdiction is being discussed.

Examples of Public Domains

  • The works of Shakespeare and Beethoven are all now in the public domain by either being created before copyrights existed or leaving the copyright term.
  • The formulae of Newtonian physics, cooking recipes and all software before 1974.
  • Works actively dedicated into public domain by their authors are reference implementations of cryptographic algorithms and the CIA’s The World Factbook.

Public domain / Licenses
An alternative to dedicating work into public domain, is for copyright holders to issue a licence which irrevocably grants as many rights as possible to the general public.

In most countries the term or rights for a patent is 20 years, after which the invention becomes part of the public domain.

A trademark registration may remain in force indefinitely, or expire without specific regard to its age. For a trademark to remain in force, the owner must continue to use it. In some circumstances, such as disuse, it could become generic and therefore part of the public domain.

Where to find public works

The sites below will guide you to public domain books, images, illustrations, audio, and films where the copyright term has expired or the creator has not renewed the license. Remember, works that are in the public domain are free and available for unrestricted use.

  • Project Gutenberg (electronic books)
  • Librivox  (audio books)
  • Prelinger Archives (films)
  • Smithsonian Institution Public Domain Images
  • New York Times Public Domain Archives

Public Domain Day

Public Domain Day is an observance of when copyright expires and works enter into the public domain. This legal transition of copyright works into the public domain usually happens every year on 1 January based on the individual copyright laws of each country. As of 1 January 2010 a Public Domain Day website lists the authors whose works are entering the public domain.