Public domain refers to creative works that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. These works are owned by the public, not an individual author or artist. They can be used by anyone for any purpose without the need for a license or permission from a previous copyright owner.
A work typically enters the public domain for one of three reasons:
The copyright has expired: In many jurisdictions, copyright expires a certain number of years after the author’s death. In the U.S., for works created after 1977, this is usually 70 years. After this period, the work enters the public domain.
The copyright owner deliberately places it into the public domain: Known as “dedicating” a work to the public domain, this removes all copyright protection from the work.
Copyright law does not protect the type of work: Some things, such as facts, ideas, federal government works (in the U.S.), and works that lack sufficient originality, are not eligible for copyright protection and are therefore in the public domain.
For example, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, who died in 1750, are in the public domain. This means that any musician can perform, record, or modify Bach’s compositions without needing to get permission or pay royalties.
It’s crucial to note that laws regarding the public domain vary from country to country, so a work may be in the public domain in one jurisdiction but not in another.