Public Domain

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See also: Creative Commons, Copyright, Fair Use, Orphan Works
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Public domain is a legal term that describes creative works that are not under copyright, either because they were never copyrighted or because their copyrights have expired. (The public domain also includes patentable works no longer patented.) Copyright limits who is allowed to make copies, so a public domain work is free to be copied by anyone. Public domain works can also be freely incorporated into new (copyrighted) works without regard to the limits of fair use.

Due to differences in copyright law from country to country, a work can be in the public domain in one country while still under copyright in another. In countries where copyright is automatic once a work is fixed in a tangible form, some people do try to donate a work they have created to the public domain, though this may not be legally possible. Sometimes creators release their works under Creative Commons licenses to achieve the same effect, but these works are still under copyright. See Wikipedia for more.

"Public domain" is sometimes misused to describe creative works that are publicly available (e.g. still in print, widely known, etc.). Works published on the Internet are also sometimes mistakenly believed to be in the public domain by virtue of being "free".

There is a widespread misconception that fanworks based on canons still in copyright are themselves in the public domain because they infringe on another copyright. Aside from debates over whether fanworks are fair use, being infringing does not invalidate the copyright of the original portions of the work. Most fanworks first published online are probably not in the public domain in countries under the Berne Convention, due to the long copyright term it requires. Some fanzines published in the United States before 1989 may be in the public domain if they do not carry adequate copyright notices.

Most FPF fanfiction is based on sources that are not in the public domain; exceptions like Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen have recent popular adaptations (still under copyright) that rekindled fannish interest.

Examples of Public Domain Works Relevant to Fandom

In the United States, the character of Sherlock Holmes is now in the public domain because the first work in which he appeared was published in 1887. Meanwhile, Night of the Living Dead (1968), origin of the modern zombie trope, is in the public domain because it was (accidentally) never copyrighted.

In Europe copyright in written works is now 70 years from the death of the author or first publication, if that occurred after the author's death; for films etc. it's 70 years after the death of the last creator. Holmes is out of copyright because the author died in 1930, more than seventy years ago, and all of the stories were published more than seventy years ago, but Night of the Living Dead will be in copyright for many years to come. Although Jules Verne died in 1905, his last novel Paris au XXe siècle (Paris in the Twentieth Century, 1863, first published 1994) will remain in copyright until 2064. There may be additional complications in works that have been substantially revised after the author's death. Recent translations of works that are otherwise in the public domain (such as Greek and Latin classics) may be in copyright as the translator's work.

There are also certain exceptions to the usual copyright laws in different countries; for example, in Britain Barrie's Peter Pan and Wendy would normally be in the public domain, since the author died in 1937, but will stay in copyright indefinitely. A special law gives the income from books, performances, etc. to a children's hospital. This may not affect the use of excerpts for e.g. fanfic, but this has never been tested in court.

Examples Wanted: Editors are encouraged to add more examples or a wider variety of examples.

Resources

  • The Online Books Page; Links to more than two million books that are either in the public domain on the site where they are held or have been made available online by their authors. Note that inclusion here does not guarantee that works are public domain in all countries.
  • Project Gutenberg and Project Gutenberg Australia archive and create e-texts of public domain works. Since the Australian copyright period is shorter than the USA and Europe some of the works at the Australian site are still in copyright elsewhere.
  • Librivox is a project where people create audiobooks of public domain works. In turn, each audiobook contains a notice releasing it to the public domain (otherwise the audiobook would be automatically copyrighted because it is a new work).