Public Domain Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Public Domain, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Public Domain?

It refers to either land, property, or any form of creative and intellectual work which is the property of government and thus a public owned. In cases of real assets, they are usually free of cost to use or charged a very nominal fees. For the intellectual or creative work, anything which is not a copyright or patented, is accesible and reuseable by public and comes under the domain of public where there is no legal restriction on use by public.

History and Meaning of Public Domain

The term "Public Domain" originated from the concept of res communes, a Latin term meaning shared things, and res nullius, which describes things owned by no one. These were concepts that existed in Roman law and were adopted into the legal systems of other countries. Over time, the term has come to refer to intellectual property rights and the ability of the public to access and use certain creative works.

In the United States, the concept of the public domain derives from the Constitution's Copyright and Patent Clause, which provides that Congress can grant exclusive rights to authors and inventors for a limited time. After that time has passed, the work enters the public domain and can be used without permission.

Examples of Public Domain

  1. Images from famous paintings: If a painting was created before 1923, the copyright has likely expired, and the work is considered to be in the public domain. Images of these paintings can be used and reproduced freely without obtaining permission from the copyright owner.

  2. Classic literature: Written works published before 1923 are in the public domain, and the public is free to use and distribute them without permission from the copyright owner.

  3. Government documents: Laws, court decisions, and other official documents produced by the U.S. government are automatically in the public domain and are free to be accessed, used, and reproduced by anyone.

Legal Terms Similar to Public Domain

  1. Fair Use: A legal doctrine that allows for limited use of copyrighted material without obtaining permission from the copyright owner.

  2. Copyright: The exclusive legal right given to the creator of a work to use and distribute that work.

  3. Creative Commons: A licensing system that allows creators to share their work with the public while still retaining some rights.

  4. Open Source: A type of licensing system that allows anyone to use, modify, and share software code.