How much Public are you in the “Public Domain”?

How much Public are you in the “Public Domain”?
Photo by Umberto / Unsplash

From "Winnie-the-Pooh" to "Sun also rises" to "Enough rope" to Disney's "Micky Mouse," many copyrighted works are entering the public domain. The public domain is a vital part of the lifecycle of copyright. Thousands of historical and cultural works from 1926 went public this year.

Although, there is a difference of "public domain(s)" in different regions due to disparity in copyright laws, such as: -

· Works by people who died in 1951 - Countries with a copyright term of 70years+Life of the Author- E.g., Russia, South America, United Kingdom, and European Union.

· Works by people who died in 1971– Countries with a copyright term of 50years +Life of Author- E.g., New Zealand, Africa, Canada, and Asia.

· Works published in or before 1926 – and all pre-1923 sound recordings- E.g., United States.

Every 1st of January is known to be Public Domain Day, and this year it comes with hundreds of thousands of sound recordings becoming copyright free in the US. Copyright protection in the US lasts for the author's life plus 70 years. However, the original work's author has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, create derivative works, display the work, etc. Since the protection extends beyond the author's life, the author's estate obtains the exclusive rights when the author dies and can subsequently enforce these rights against those who infringe.

But the buzz words "public domain" can create a false sense of security. When the story enters the public domain, it does not mean that all uses of that character are without copyright protection, for example. The BBC still pays licensing fees to Conan Doyle Estate to use the characters and stores of Sherlock Holmes and other shows even though Doyle's stories' main body was already in the public domain. However, not everyone was ready to pay the licensing fee (or royalty) to Conan Doyle Estate because the work was already in the public domain from the point of view. Leslie Klinger, an annotator and editor of Sherlock Holmes, sued the estate, arguing that the characters from Sherlock Holmes were in the public domain. The US Court of Illinois favoured Klinger but warned him against using characters introduced in the short stories published after 1923, still under copyright protection law.

Just like we saw Sherlock Holmes in the early 2000s, we can expect to see the works of Winnie-the-Pooh in new ways, although it has already been featured in Ryan Reynold's new mint mobile commercial. When the work enters the public domain, the Public can now legally use and share it without permission or any fee. This enables access to cultural material that might otherwise be lost to history. Moreover, the public domain is also a wellspring for creativity. But one has to be careful before using someone else's work even if the copyright term of protection has passed, as we have seen in the case of Sherlock Holmes.

Copyright issues still lurk when content enters the public domain, one must carefully identify what has entered the public domain (free to use) and what remains under law.