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Public Domain Legal Requirements

There are many unanswered, hard to find answers pertaining to the legal aspects of using work in the public domain. However, the rules are really quite simple. If the work is in the public domain, you can use it however you wish to use it. The real trouble comes in determining if a work is in fact in the public domain.

However, you may use work that is in the public domain, without gaining permission from the author. If you change the work, you can become the author of it, and copyright it. If you do not change the work, you may sell it as is, but it is a good idea not to put yourself as the author of the work in this case.

That's pretty much it. Other than this, you are free to do as you will with public domain works. You can use part or all of a work, you can convert printed work to digital work, you can use bits and pieces of public domain music or films, you can use public domain photos however you like.

When you change a public domain work, however, and make it your own, you do need to copyright it. For instance, if you use a bunch of old photographs to create a collection of photographs, that collection is copyrightable material, even though each individual picture is in the public domain. Someone can still use an individual photograph from your collection - but they cannot use the entire collection.

Again, the most important thing to understand and know is how to determine that a work is, in fact, in the public domain. If you are in doubt, take the time to verify this before you use it, and also make sure you understand the difference between public domain and fair use.

International Law and Public Domain Works

When it comes to determining whether a work is in the public domain or not, you need to pay attention to the country that the original copyright, if any, was acquired in. Each country has different copyright laws that determine when a work becomes public domain material.

International law is just what it says - International. In other words, the copyright laws of Japan apply to people in other countries who want to use work that was copyrighted in Japan. If the work is still covered by Japan copyright law, but would no longer be covered under United States copyright laws, the work is not in the public domain - in any country.

You must adhere to the copyright laws of the country where the work was copyrighted in the first place. This is true for all works copyrighted in all countries, no matter what country you may reside or use the work in.

The copyright laws are not the same in every country. It is important that you find out what the copyright laws are before you assume that a work is in the public domain, for the country where that work was copyrighted. Too often, people assume that copyright laws are the same internationally, and this is just not true.

If you do not take the time to determine that a work is indeed in the public domain, you may be infringing on someone else's copyright. This can lead to large fines, lawsuits, and possibly imprisonment in some countries. If nothing else, it will most certainly damage your reputation!

Do not assume that nothing can happen to you legally if you use work that is copyrighted in a country that you do not reside in. People in other countries can instigate lawsuits in the country where you reside just as easily as they can sue in their own country.

I am not writing this to frighten you, but to make you aware, and to let you know that you should definitely cover all your bases when you are checking the status of a particular work.