Copyrighted works on the Net include news stories, software, novels,
screenplays, graphics, pictures, and even email. In fact, the frightening
reality is that the vast majority of the items on the Net are protected by
However, there are a lot of works on the Net that are in the public domain. The
Public Domain is that repository of all works that for whatever reason are not
protected by copyright. As such, they are free for all to use without
permission. Works in the Public Domain include works with the following
These are items that by their very nature are not eligible for copyright
protection. These items include:
The public domain contains all works which previously had copyright
protection, but which subsequently lost that protection due to pilot error.
While it is all but impossible to lose copyright protection under today's laws,
previous statutory schemes have not been so generous. For example, all works
published before January 1, 1978 that did not contain a valid copyright notice
may be considered to be in the public domain.
Owners of works published between 1978 and March 1, 1989 that did not contain
a valid copyright notice were given a five year grace period in which to
correct the problem of publication without notice before their work was
unceremoniously tossed into the public domain.
The public domain contains all works for which the statutory copyright period
Additionally, you are free to copy any work published before 1964 in which the
copyright owner failed to renew his copyright. See the section on Duration of
Copyrights for more detailed information on effective copyright periods.
Federal documents and publications are not copyrighted, and therefore are
considered to be in the Public Domain. Consequently, if you obtain a government
document from the net, such as a law, statute, agency circular, federal report,
or any other document published or generated by the federal government, you are
free to copy or distribute the document.
For example, I could have downloaded (copied) a document published by the
copyright office about investigating copyright status and re-distributed it on
the net by incorporating it into this Website.
Regarding this potential vat of stuff to copy, please be aware that the
operable clause here is authored by the Federal Government. To clarify, Terry
Carrol, author of the Copyright FAQ, makes an important distinction: If a
private contractor authors the work, the work is copyrighted, and the
government may obtain the copyright from the contractor (section 105
specifically allows for this). You can see this in action in late-night public
service announcements that carry copyright notices listing a U.S. agency as
copyright owner (a common one is the anti-drunk driving PSAs, copyright owned
by the U.S. Department of Transportation).
It should also be noted that many on-line services distribute government
documents and claim a copyright in value added elements such as comments,
formatting, indexing and summaries. If you suspect that such a government
document may contain such copyrightable element, you can save the file as ASCII
to strip off any formatting and design elements, and then use a text editor to
delete any added comments or other third party additions.
Works Granted to
Copyrightable works may also enter the public domain if the copyright owner
grants the work to the public domain.