Publishing and Public Domain Works

Jan 21

Publishing and Public Domain Works

When an author publishes a work, he or she immediately becomes the copyright holder for that work and for all intents and purposes, “owns” that work. This means that it cannot be reproduced / used / sold without their permission, and that any money made off the sales of this work will have to be shared with the copyright holder. This is great for people who create. They obviously deserve to be paid for their work, and should be allowed to hold those who steal their ideas accountable.

However, copyrights do not last forever, and once a party’s copyright for a given work expires, the work falls into what is known as the “public domain.” Once a work enters the public domain, it no longer has an owner, meaning that publishing companies, script writers, and other entities can use the work without having to pay royalties on it, or obtaining royalties through a business lawyer.

However, determining when a work falls into the public domain can be a complicated undertaking, as a number of different laws have affected when a copyright expires and the work becomes available for free use. In years past, an easy rule of thumb was that a copyright lasted for 75 years, at which point a work would become part of the public domain.

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), however, passed during the Clinton administration, added an additional 20 years to the length of a copyright holder’s ownership of their work, meaning that with the exception of certain publications, such as supreme court rulings and some other government documents, most published works will be protected under copyright laws for 95 years. CTEA was challenged publicly in 2003, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this challenge.

As is, all works published before 1923 are currently in the public domain, and because of the changes implemented by the CTEA, no new works will enter the public domain in the United States until 2019. Publishers and other parties, such as the publishers’ business attorneys, need to pay close attention to issues like public domain and copyrights in order to avoid taking action that violates a party’s copyrights, opening them up to potential legal action from the copyright holder.

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