This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Monday, October 04, 2010

Using Out of Copyright Material Responsibly

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Before you can understand what is out of copyright, you must first understand the Copyright Law and the true definition of the terms Public Domain and Royalty-free. It's much more complicated than most people realize. If you write, blog, create music, videos, book trailers, use photos on websites, blogs and marketing materials, you can't afford not to have a clear understanding of these issues--especially as sue-happy as people are these days looking to make some quick, easy money.

What is the Copyright Law?
It varies from country to country, but since I live in the U.S., I will attempt to focus on the U.S. Copyright Law, which governs the legally enforceable rights of creative and artistic works of the author and/or copyright owner. It is a federal law and authorized by the United States Constitution. The first Copyright Act was established in 1790 and there have been several more acts, amendments and additions since then.  

The purpose of the Copyright Law is to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries, including the creation of works of art, literature, music,drama, pantomimes, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual, sound recordings, derivative, compilations, architectural, and digital works. Other issues dealt with under the Copyright Law include registrations, first right ownership, licenses, transfers, exclusive rights, copyright infringement, duration, etc. 

Here is a great article on "10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained"

What is Public Domain?
Works are in the Public Domain if they are not covered by intellectual property rights, such as copyright or if the intellectual property rights to the works have expired. If you go to a website and do not see a copyright symbol, statement, or credit given to the author or owner, you cannot assume it is in the Public Domain. Some copyright registrations can be renewed once they expire, preventing them from expiring.

Expiration of Copyright into Public Domain

Unpublished or Unregistered Works - Life of the author + 70 years, if author is unknown, 120 years after date of creation.

Published and First-Time Registered Works

Before 1923 - Public Domain (Expired)

1923 - 1977 - Published without a copyright notice - Public Domain

1978 - March 1, 1989 - Published without notice or registered within 5 years - Public Domain 

1978 - March 1, 1989 - Published without notice, but registered within 5 years - If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.

1923 - 1963 - Published with notice, but copyright not renewed - Public Domain

1923-1969 - Published with notice, but copyright was renewed - 95 years after author's death

1964 - 1977 - Published with notice - 95 years after author's death

Between  1977- 2002 - These details are complicated, click here for more information. 

After 2002 - 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.

AnytimeWorks prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties - Public Domain

What is Royalty-Free?
The term royalty-free means that once the content is licensed (meaning the license the royalty-free license is purchased) under a set of guidelines, the licensee is normally free to use it in perpetuity without paying additional royalty charges for each subsequent use. It is still most likely under copyright and not necessarily in the Public Domain.


Cornell University

10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained