The Public Domain – Top 10 Questions
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Question 1 – What is the public domain?

The public domain represents any creative work, such as a book, writing, photograph, music, etc. that is not protected by law and can be freely used by everyone for any legal reason. In essence, a work in the "public domain" is "public property" for all. NOTE: Many works that fall into the public domain used to be protected by copyright law but now no longer have such protections.

Question 2 – What are the differences between the public domain and forms of intellectual property like a copyright, trademarks, and patent?

To answer this question you need to know the definitions of the public domain and the intellectual property concepts of a copyright, trademark, and patent. Please refer to Question 1 for the definition of public domain – and remember, a work in the public domain no longer has any legal protections.

A copyright is a legal concept that protects works of authorship (e.g. such as short stories, books, music, plays, choreographies, architectures, movies, etc.) that are fixed in some kind of tangible medium of expression (e.g. on paper, on a recording device, in any kind of fixed material). But a copyright does not protect the actual ideas, procedures, processes, systems, or discoveries in the copyright. For example, if you write a song about love, you cannot copyright the idea of love. Rather, you can only copyright your expression of love in the song.

A trademark is a legal concept that protects words, names, symbols, logos, and devices used in connection with goods or services to indicate the source of those goods and services. In short, a trademark is a source identifier. This means a trademark is a "mark" used for consumers so they can easily identify and differentiate between different products and services in the marketplace.

A patent is a legal concept that grants protections to individuals who create a new invention. Technically speaking, a patent grants the holder of the patent the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention.

Question 3 – Can I Make Money Off of Works Within the Public Domain?

Yes! You can freely create what are known derivative works. A derivative work is based on one or more pre-existing works. For example, you could take certain public domain documents, and add your original commentary and/or other information and obtain a copyright on that new derivative work. See Question 7 for more info on derivative works.

Next, we’ll go over copyright questions 4 – 6.