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Trademark and Copyright - What is Public Domain?

by Tanya McCarthy on July 30, 2019

Public domain is defined as “the state of belonging or being available to the public as a whole, and therefore not subject to copyright.” A lot of people have been asking the question on if certain literary works are infringing on trademark or copyright, which is IMPORTANT, so I wanted to briefly discuss this topic today.

Please make sure you check out my other posts on Trademark and Copyright. 




Public domain pertains primarily to creative works like stories, movies, and music. When these become public domain, their rights have either expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or may potentially be inapplicable.

Interestingly, in the United States, any book published before 1924, is in the public domain.

In our case, we want to utilize our graphic design talents, and marry it with public domain rights. This is completely acceptable and viewed as a “derivative work”.

So how is something in the Public domain?

  1. The duration of the copyright has expired.
  2. The work was produced by the US federal government
  3. The work isn’t fixed in tangible form
  4. The work didn’t include an appropriate copyright notice, prior to March 1, 1989
  5. The work doesn’t have sufficient originality

Goodreads lists popular public domain books here. Going through the list you can see titles like “The Wizard of Oz”, “A Christmas Carol”, Wuthering Heights”, “Hamlet” and more. You can determine if a quote is public domain by doing a simple search for what you are looking for based off of the book title. 

For example, someone asked me the other day if Goldilocks and the Three Bears was copyright. A quick search yielded that it is in fact in the public domain, so derivative works are acceptable.

I was always under the misconception that the quote "Thou she be but little, she is fierce," was under copyright. I soon discovered the source, A Midsummer Night's Dream by Shakespeare, was in the public domain and the quote can be used freely. Just tread carefully because although it may be public domain in the eyes of copyright, someone may have filed a frivolous trademark. 

You can do a similar search for movies and music, but it doesn’t yield nearly as many results. Be wary when searching and double check your facts to ensure there is no copyright or trademark concerns. 

Feel free to blast me with questions below and hopefully this helps some of you.

As always, join my Facebook Group for updates. 




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