Definition: A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone. The reasons that the work is not protected include:
(1) the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright
(2) the work is a work of the U.S. Government.
Certain Unpublished, Unregistered Works Enter Public Domain
Certain works that were either not published or not registered for copyright as of Jan. 1, 1978, entered the public domain on Jan. 1, 2003, unless the works were published on or before Dec. 31, 2002.
Under section 303 of the 1976 Copyright Act, works that were created but neither published nor registered in the Copyright Office before Jan. 1, 1978, lost their common law copyright protection and acquired a statutory term of protection that was the life of the author plus 50 years. This was amended in 1998 to life plus 70 years.
As a result of the 1976 Copyright Act, any works whose author had died over 50 years prior to 1978 would have entered the public domain after Dec. 31, 1977. To provide a reasonable term of copyright protection for these works, and in light of the fact that these works had enjoyed perpetual protection under the common law, Congress extended their term by at least 25 more years. Congress also encouraged publication by providing an additional 25 more years, extended in 1998 to 45 more years, of protection if the work was published on or before Dec. 31, 2002.
That first 25-year period expired on Dec. 31, 2002. Any work that was neither published nor registered as of Jan. 1, 1978, and whose author died before 1933 entered the public domain on Jan. 1, 2003, unless it was published on or before Dec. 31, 2002. If the author died in 1933 or later, the work will be protected for 70 years after the author’s death, due to the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998.
Image courtesy of openaccessweek.org distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
Links About Open Access
You should assume that most of the materials on the Internet are copyrighted, not public domain, including electronic mail messages. Once an expression is committed to a tangible medium, including a computer file, it is protected. No notice is required. So unless a work is in the public domain or the copyright owner allows further reproduction, unauthorized copying in excess of fair use or other lawful exceptions is prohibited.
When working on the Internet keep in mind: