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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 if:

  1. it was first created before January 1, 1923, or at least 95 years before January 1 of the current year, whichever is later; or
  2. the last surviving author died at least 70 years before January 1 of the current year.

When 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. 

*What 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.

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