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17 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq (1988 ed. and Supp. 1993)
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 copyright law.
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 characteristics:
These are items that by their very nature are not eligible for copyright protection. These items include:
- Short phrases
- Blank forms
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 has expired.
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.