The public domain is a catalogue of all artistic, literary, and musical works that are not protected under copyright or intellectual property laws. They can therefore be used, distributed, or produced by any person, as they do not belong to any one person or party. Common examples of public domain works include Shakespeare plays, the King James version of the Bible, and certain works of Sir Isaac Newton.

When Do Works Go into the Public Domain?

Works become public domain if:

  • The copyright has expired
  • The work is unable to be copyrighted (such as certain mathematic formulas)
  • A copyright never existed for the particular work

Expiration dates for copyrights generally depend on the type of work. For musical works, copyrights last 28 years. They can be renewed for another 47 years, which makes for a total of 75 years of copyright protection. Patents usually last 20 years, while trademarks usually last 10 years (and can be renewed). These can vary depending on various facts.

Can Someone Be Sued for Using Public Domain Works?

Generally not- since public domain works belong to the "public", no one can claim their exclusive use. On the other hand, it’s common for people to create original works of art that are based on works that exist in the public domain. For instance, a re-working of a public domain song can be copyrighted, so long as it constitutes an entirely new work of art. In that case, the newly created song is protected if copyrighted, and can’t be used without the owner’s permission.

Lawsuits for intellectual property lawsuits generally yield similar legal penalties, including: civil fines for damages, criminal fines for statutory violations, and confiscation of any unauthorized materials.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Public Domain Lawsuits?

Intellectual property laws often contain highly specific concepts that require expert assistance. You may wish to hire an intellectual property lawyer if you have any questions about copyrights, patents or trademarks. Your attorney can help you obtain protection for your work, and can also represent you in court if you need to file a legal claim.