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What is "Public Domain"?

Public Domain is an intellectual property designation refering to the body of creative works and knowledge in which no person, government or organization has any proprietary interest such as a copyright. These works are considered part of the public cultural and intellectual heritage of content that is not owned or controlled by anyone and which may be freely used by all. According to Wikipedia: "These materials are public property, and available for anyone to use freely (the "right to copy") for any purpose. The public domain can be defined in contrast to several forms of intellectual property; the public domain in contrast to copyrighted works is different from the public domain in contrast to trademarks or patented works."

Please note that the laws of various countries define the scope of the public domain differently, making it necessary to specify which jurisdiction's public domain is being discussed.

For laws specific to the United States, see the section "US Copyright Rules: Films in the US Public Domain" included at the end of this guide.

For more information, see also:

Fishman, Stephen, The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More by Stephen Fishman. Berkeley, CA: Nolo, 2006.

How Does a Film Enter the Public Domain?

A film’s protected status and protectable life begins with the initial commercial showing, the copyright registration date, or the in-notice date - whichever comes first. To help people understand the general principals of why a film enters the public domain, Valkyrie Films have put together a helpful synopsis, which is reproduced below.

Although there is no single method for determining if a film - or parts of it - is in the public domain, most have entered the public domain because they were:

  1. released without Copyright Notices;
  2. were never registered with the Library of Congress, had improper or late registrations; or
  3. were not renewed after 28 years under the old requirements for films made before 1964.

A detailed discussion of these concepts follows.

Copyright Notice
Publication of materials without notice caused the materials to immediately fall into the Public Domain. The law required that a copyright notice consisting of the Year, the word copyright or the symbol for copyright (©) in its place, and the name of the claiming copyright owner. The notice had to be clearly displayed and readable somewhere in the opening or closing credits of a film or television production. Publication of a defective notice was the same as publication without notice and the work would fall into the Public Domain. Examples of films released without © notices are Night of the Living Dead, McLintock!, Carnival of Souls, some 1950s TV shows and many Roger Corman films.

Registration of a motion picture with the Library of Congress is always required. Because of neglect or the feeling they would have no future value, some films were never registered -- from 1930s B-films produced by Principal Pictures, to an occasional A-feature like LIFE WITH FATHER, to numerous 1950s TV series such as “Westinghouse Studio One.” Initially, prompt registration was called for in the law but the courts have interpreted that period might extend for the full 28 year period. Failure to register during that period caused the materials to fall into the Public Domain. Films made before 1964 that were never registered, can NOT be registered and protected at this late date.

Most films are promptly registered TODAY. However, since the period allowed for registration is inadequately defined, a film bearing notice can be registered at any time during the registration life span (currently 95 years from the date produced). So no penalties under law exist until the work is placed under copyright protection by registration. The term Non-Registered (N.R.) applies to these unregistered but still protectable materials that includes made-for-TV movies, foreign films and others made after 1964 that have not yet been registered. Under the current copyright law they still can be registered by someone connected with theoriginal production, but until that time they can be sold and used as public domain.

Copyright Renewal
Initially under copyright law the first Registration with the Library of Congress was for a term of 28 years, and that term could be renewed for another 28 years for a total protected term of 56 years. Failure to renew 28 years after a movie or TV show was made is the main reason that American films made before 1964 are currently in the public domain.

In 1966 Congress prepared a new copyright law that extended protection to 75 years from the date a film was released. This same extension applied to films which had not entered the Public Domain prior to 1966. Thus any film in copyright after 1909 and renewed automatically had its copyright period extended to 75 years. In 1992 legislation extended to films made prior to 1978 and after 1963 the automatic extension of their initial copyright. Such films were automatically protected without copyright renewal. This law did not set aside the requirement under law for prompt registration for film made PRIOR to 1978 and as such failure to register those films within the copyright registration period of 28 years automatically transferred the materials to the Public Domain.

In 1998 an additional 20 years was granted to the copyright period making all films for 1923 on available for a 95 year period of protection. All films made BEFORE 1923 are permanently in the public domain. Through all of these extensions, American films which had already fallen into the public domain for the reasons sited above continued to be public domain.