Not long ago a friend showed me an Internet marketer’s sales page and asked me what I thought. The mega-hyped, yellow-highlighted sales copy claimed that his breakthrough software and power-packed system would enable her (or you, or me) to make a fortune republishing and repackaging public domain material — all because of this “little known loophole in copyright law.”
First I advised her to keep her money in her pocket. Then I explained that the public domain is not some legal loophole. It’s one side of the copyright bargain in the US, where creators get exclusive rights to their works for a limited time ... and then those works belong to everybody. The purpose of copyright is to “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” that is, to promote creativity and learning. Public domain works are your property, and mine — that’s the way the system is supposed to work.
Which got me thinking.
In the US, the public domain is shrinking. We’ve seen an incredible expansion of intellectual property protection in recent years, which means that fewer works are entering the public domain. And many of the works that already are in the public domain are locked up by restrictive licenses that deny the public their right to use what should be, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, “free as the air to common use.”
That’s not good.
Creativity needs prior works. You know, the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” idea — artists reusing, transforming, and building upon the works of others. But to build upon prior works, those works must be available. Hmmmm. So just what is available, anyway? And what isn’t, because of laws like the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act?
I started poking about on the web, and ended up asking myself ...
What if there was an online guide to the public domain?
Yeah ... a guide. You know, like, um, a Sherpa. Giving you not hype, but real, honest information. Listen, I don’t know if you can make millions republishing and repackaging public domain information. But I do know that determining whether a work is copyrighted or public domain isn’t always easy.
There’s a lot of information about the public domain online, but in my research I never found a site that pulled it all (or a lot of it, anyway) together. So I thought an informational site on the public domain might be useful. I hope it is.
Why might I be able to guide you?
Glad you asked ...
My name is Barbara, and I’m the webmaster of this site. I’m an entrepreneur, writer, and attorney who has long focused on copyright and trademark issues, licensing, and contract negotiation. I’m admitted to practice in Massachusetts and New York, USA. I have to add this, though: while I’d love to provide you with information about the public domain, I am not your lawyer (as I explain further here).