Public Domain and Copyfraud – What Am I Allowed to Use?

In the modern world of video streaming, NFTs, and more digital content than ever before, our copyright system has truly been tested. Content creators and other creatives may be confused as to what content they’re legally allowed to use and understandably so. The purpose of this blog is to clarify how works enter the public domain and how to protect yourself from copyfraud claims.

Understanding Public Domain

Public domain refers to content that is not protected by any intellectual property law, and so it is owned by the public. This work is available for use in any material, by anyone, without requiring permission. Most often, works enter the public domain after the original copyright has expired, but they may also be added by “dedicating” the work, which means specifying that it was created for use in the public domain. Only the copyright owner can decide to transfer it into the public domain in this way.

Because copyright durations have changed over the years, determining when work will enter the public domain is heavily dependent on when it was published. For works published in 1978 or later, the copyright lasts for the entire life of the author, plus 70 years. Copyrights created after 1978 also do not need to be renewed, but those created before generally lasted for 28 years before renewal, which led to some works entering into the public domain earlier than expected due to a lapse in renewal.

Once work has entered the public domain, it can be used freely by others. Disney’s films make an excellent example. More than 50 of Disney’s most-famous movies are based on stories pulled out of the public domain, including Alice in Wonderland, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Robin Hood. This answers the question of whether or not public domain works are allowed to be used for profit – they certainly are and do not require any special treatment.

What Is Copyfraud?

Copyfraud is the act of fraudulently claiming ownership of public domain material in an effort to extract licensing fees or discourage other artists from using similar public domain material in their work. While copyfraud is a criminal offense, prosecutions are few and far between. Because copyfraud is not often prosecuted, and public domain content is often used by creatives who are just starting out and don’t know their rights, this has become a widespread issue. Supporters of public domain content and its usage are understandably concerned about the rapid growth of copyfraud and hope to see this issue taken more seriously in the future, either through stricter or clearer dissemination of what is in the public domain.

Whether you’re a creator dealing with copyfraud, a copyright owner seeking help in enforcing your copyright, or you are dealing with any other form of intellectual property issue, contact Integrated General Counsel today.

Integrated General Counsel