Myth: If it’s on the Internet, it is in the “public domain” and can be freely copied.
While information on the Internet is “public,” it’s not all in the “public domain.”
According to Wikipedia,
“Public domain comprises the body of knowledge and innovation (especially creative works such as writing, art, music, and inventions) in relation to which no person or other legal entity can establish or maintain proprietary interests within a particular legal jurisdiction. This body of information and creativity is considered to be part of a common cultural and intellectual heritage, which, in general, anyone may use or exploit, whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Only about 15 percent of all books are in the public domain, and 10 percent of all books that are still in print.”
No Permission is required to use:
- Works created by the U.S. Government.
- Works for which the copyright term has expired.
- Works used within the scope of the “Fair Use” Doctrine.
Works of the United States Government
Copyright protection is not available to a “work of the United States Government” which is defined as a work “prepared by an employee of the United States Government as part of the person’s official duties.” Hence, both the United States Government and its employees are prohibited from copyrighting works produced in the course of official business.
For a chart that summarizes when copyrights expire and works enter the public domain, see: http://www.unc.edu/~unclng/public-d.htm (authored by Lolly Gasaway, University of North Carolina).
“Fair Use” Doctrine
The rights of the copyright owner are limited by the “fair use” doctrine, which allows reproduction of copyright protected materials under certain circumstances.
Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut rules for what is “fair use.” There are no “safe harbors” such as specific number of words or percentage of content. For discussion of the factors that are used to determine “fair use” see my post re What is Fair Use?
Unauthorized copying can be expensive
Penalties for infringing a copyright can include payment of statutory damages (between $750 and $150,000 per infringement) and attorney fees. For example: the music industry has been aggressive about enforcing its copyrights. Many people have paid thousands of dollars to settle claims for downloading music without permission and payment.
In conclusion, if you’re using someone else’s work, carefully consider whether the work is in the public domain or your use makes sense under the “fair use” doctrine. If your use is extensive, get permission, in writing. If you are uncertain, get advice from an experienced Business Attorney.