Q. What does it mean when an image is in the public domain?
A creative work, such as an illustration or photograph, is said to be
in the public domain if there are no laws or copyrights which restrict
is use. Different countries have different definitions and guidelines,
so we’ll just look at the United States and the European Union, who
have reached some common ground.
Copyright is a form of protection
provided by US law to the authors of “original works of authorship,”
including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other
intellectual works. The owner of the copyright has the legal power to
use the work or allow others to use it for a finite period of time. The
work loses this protection and is considered in the public domain
it was first created before January 1, 1923, or at least 95 years before January 1 of the current year, whichever is later; or
the last surviving author died at least 70 years before January 1 of the current year.
a public domain work, like an illustration, is changed or enhanced in a
creative or substantive way*, it becomes a new work. It is protected
again by an active copyright for the artist who altered the image.
Also, a distinctive grouping of images constitutes a new work, and the
collection can be copyrighted.
is a "creative or substantive'" alteration? The Copyright Office
uses this example: correcting the spelling in a book is not creative or
substantive, but adding chapters is. Columbia University Library
cites this example: correcting the color and blemishes on a print of
the Mona Lisa is not creative or substantive, but giving her a hat and
big red lips is.