A great amount of effort goes into protecting intellectual property from entering the public domain.
For many business leaders, the public domain represents a black hole where original content is consumed and exploited in ways that are detrimental to the business and to the value of the material itself.
Interestingly, the genesis of the term "public domain" isn't far off this perception. The phrase "fall in the public domain" originated in 19th century Europe where a poet referred to a copyrighted work's descent "into the sinkhole of the public domain." Although public domain material has significant value for educational, cultural, and even creative purposes, businesses have good reasons for protecting their sensitive material from entering the public domain.
But before you make any assumptions about your own work or work that appears to be available for general consumption, it's important to have a thorough understanding of the public domain and copyrights. Here's what your company needs to know . . .
What is the Public Domain?
The public domain isn't a place as much as it is a concept. Works, ideas, and information that are classified as being in the public domain are available for general public use. In other words, any material found in the public domain is not protected by copyright laws and can be used without threat of legal liability.
How Does Work Enter the Public Domain?
There are several ways for works to enter the public domain. The most obvious way for previously copyrighted material to enter the public domain is after the expiration of the copyright term, which is currently the creator's lifetime plus 70 years for individual copyright owners. However, copyright owners can also elect to abandon their claim to the copyright and voluntarily allow it to pass into the public domain for personal, charitable, or sometimes even business reasons (e.g. to inspire innovation in a specific business area).
Protecting Work From the Public Domain
The Copyright Act of 1976 made the copyrights for works created after January 1, 1978 non-renewable. Although it may be impossible to protect an expiring copyright to fall into the public domain, there may be a way to modify or update the work and secure a new copyright registration prior to the expiration of the term. Consult your attorney for specific strategies to address the challenge of copyrighted work that is set to enter the public domain.