New Rules for Using Public Domain Materials

March 1999
by Lloyd J. Jassin, Esq.

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Lloyd JassinLloyd J. Jassin (photo right) is a publishing attorney specializing in copyright and trademark law. He is the co-author of “The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writers, Editors and Publishers” (Wiley Books for Writers). He can be contacted Jassin@copylaw.com.


Late last year, the President signed into law the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Under this new law — which adds 20 years to most copyright terms — no new works will enter the public domain until 2019. Enacted to ensure adequate protection for US works abroad, the new act restricts access to works published after 1922. As this article points out, passage of the act has changed the rules for using public domain materials — a rich source of quality, inexpensive content for many smaller publishers. Unfortunately those who rely on such materials will be adversely affected by these new rules.

What Is the Public Domain? Copyright protection does not last forever. That’s why copyright is often called a “limited monopoly.” When copyrights grow old and die, the works they protect fall into the public domain. The public domain (“PD”), therefore, refers to works that are not protected by copyright. Subject to certain exceptions, public domain works may be freely copied or used in the creation of derivative works without permission or authorization of the former copyright owners. Besides “expired” copyrights, the following categories of works are not eligible for copyright protection:

(1) US Government works,
(2) state judicial opinions,
(3) legislative enactments, and other official documents,
(4) unadorned ideas,
(5) blank forms,
(6) short phrases,
(7) titles, and
(8) extemporaneous speeches.

Whenever you rely on the PD status…IBPA Members – Click here to view the full article (login required).

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