Understanding Copyright Law and Public Domain

Understanding Copyright Law and Public Domain
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Many people think that once you register your copyrights, you and your estate own it forever under copyright law. Public domain laws are a mystery for some, but people know that something is happening when they hear new artists recording old songs that someone else wrote, or read classic novels that are repackaged and sold. As a business owner, you can make money using works that are now in the public domain.

When you create your own work, meaning it is original, you own the copyright to it. Registering your copyright with the United States Copyright Office is one step you can take to protect your copyrights. If someone uses all or part of your work, you could sue for copyright infringement and offer the copyright registrations as proof that you’re the original owner of the work. Copyright registration is beneficial and helpful, but not necessary for copyright ownership.

The main issue concerning copyright law and public domain is the term (length) of the copyrights. You lose ownership to copyrights after a period of time, and the work gets transferred to the public domain. Once it’s in the public domain, anyone can use it and profit from it without the need to obtain permission. Here are the basic copyright terms you should know about:

  • Unpublished works (life of author plus 70 years)
  • Unpublished anonymous and pseudonymous works (120 years from date of creation)
  • Works made for hire (as part of a job-120 years from date of creation or 95 years from first publication)
  • Works when the death date of the author is not known (120 years from date of creation or 95 years from first publication)

Here’s an easier way to check whether the work you have in mind is in the public domain, based on when it was published:

  • Works published by the U.S. Federal Government (always in the public domain, no matter when it’s created)
  • Works published in the U.S. before 1923 (in the public domain)
  • Works published in the U.S. from 1923 through 1963 (in the public domain, unless it was renewed during the 28th year following creation)
  • Works published in the U.S. from 1964 through 1977 (not in the public domain – 95 year term applies)
  • Works published in 1978 or later (not in the public domain)

Now that you know the rules, you should put your entrepreneurial hat on and think of the ways that you can make a living thanks to copyright law and public domain rules.

Profiting from Public Domain

It takes more effort and more time to create your own work. Some entrepreneurs choose to bypass the creation process altogether by publishing works that are in the public domain. Here are a few business ideas to try, thanks to copyright law and public domain rules:

  • Sell reprints of books as a book publisher, including cookbooks and theological books
  • Create a CD of music in the public domain, and use a music producer or composer for the music arrangement
  • Use artwork for postcards, greeting cards, t-shirts, posters and cups
  • Make a documentary film using film footage in the public domain

You may not want to sell products using works available in the public domain, but you could still use it for marketing purposes. For example, consider including a picture in the public domain in an article that you publish on your website. The right picture can pique the curiosity of visitors, and get them to read it.

Copyright law and public domain rules can work to your benefit, if you know the rules. There are no original ideas, just repackaged and improved ones.

Image Credit: Jim Larranaga