The public domain includes works that are not protected by copyright and are available for use by the public. For example, works that are created by the United States government are in the public domain. Additionally, works enter the public domain after the expiration of their copyright. As such, works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain, and works published before 1964 are in the public domain if the copyright holder did not renew the copyright.
Are modern reprints of a public domain work subject to copyright protection?
No, unless the work contains new material that constitutes a creative change to the original work. For instance, a reprint with new illustrations, a new introduction, or other creative contributions would qualify the reprint as a derivative work.
A reprint of Moby Dick, for instance, would not be subject to renewed copyright protection. A re-issue of Moby Dick containing a new forward by a scholar of American Literature would, however, be protected under copyright law
Are translations of public domain works protected under copyright law?
Yes, a translation is considered a derivative work and is afforded copyright protection.
Public Domain materials are free, right?
Possibly, if a public domain work has been digitized, you may be able to find it for free online. But public domain truly refers to the intellectual property rights, meaning you are free to use the work without any type of permission, even though you may have to pay for it. On the flip side, just because something is free, doesn't mean it isn't protected under copyright law.
What are Orphan Works?
Orphan works are still presumably protected by copyright, they are not commercially available, and the copyright holder cannot be found. Orphan works are rather troubling because no one is benefitting from them, not the copyright holder, not the public, not even the people or organizations who contol access to the materials. Read more about orphan works in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Out of Fear, Colleges Lock Books and Images away from Scholars."
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