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Intellectual Property

A guide to understanding the different types of Intellectual Property (Copyright, Patents, Trademarks, Trade Secrets)


What is it?

The public domain is made up of works that are no longer covered under copyright law. Because they are no longer limited by copyright they belong to the public so they can be used, shared, modified, and distributed in any way without requiring permission. The kinds of works that end up in the Public Domain are the same ones that are covered by the Copyright aspect of Intellectual Property; literary works, audiovisual works (films, cartoons, etc...), music, dramatic works (theater productions), paintings, photographs, sculptures, architectural works, sound recordings, choreography, and pantomimes. 

Important Distinctions:

  • The terms Public Domain and Creative Commons are not the same things, although Creative Commons does offer a Public Domain license that creators can place on their works, signifying that the public may use them without attributing them. 
  • Government Publications and Documents are accessible to the public through the Open Records Act. However, they are not all available in the Public Domain, and care should be taken to find out what kind of license is available before using or modifying them.
  • The term Open Access and Public Domain are not the same things. Most Open Access works are still covered by copyright, and care should be taken to find out what kind of license is available before using or modifying them.

How does a created work end up in the Public Domain?

There are three main ways in which a work can be designated as Public Domain;
  1. The copyright expires. (See Public Domain Day) In 2021 the copyright of numerous artistic works from 1925 expired and those items officially entered the Public Domain. See general guidelines on when items enter the Public Domain in this article from
  2. The original author/creator fails to renew the copyright contract on time or consciously makes the decision to allow the work to enter the Public Domain by not renewing. 
  3. The creator makes the decision to allow the work to be entered directly into the Public Domain by publically dedicating it. This is often signified by the use of a Creative Commons Public Domain mark.

Where can I find items in the Public Domain?

Here is a short list of websites where you can go to access items that have entered the Public Domain