When is work considered to be in the "public domain"?
The "public domain" refers to created material that does not get copyright protection by law or protection under the law has lapsed. By definition, materials in the public domain do not have copyright protections and thus you do not need the owner's permission to use these materials.
The primary works that fall into this category are those written before 1920. Under modern copyright law, anything written or created before this time is no longer protected under copyright law unless an act of congress has extended its protection. To date, the Walt Disney cartoons are one of the few works that have received this special copyright extension.
Examples of Public Domain Works
Examples of public domain works in this category include most classical music including works written by Bach, Betthoven, Schuman, and Triccovski. Artwork such as the Mona Lisa and literature such as Shakespear, Poe, and Wordsworth are also in the public domain. However, reproductions and translations of these works are not in the public domain if they were created after 1920. So, for example, if you are planning on placing a recording of the Moonlight Sonata into your film, you must either record it yourself or find a recording that was produced before 1920. Otherwise, permission is required.
The second type of works that are always public domain are works created by the government. These works fall under public domain because they were paid for by public funds. This means that if you wish to play a government public service announcement in your classroom or you wish to distribute a government brochure, you do not need the government’s approval.
Internet Publication: Not Necessarily in the Public Domain
One of the more controversial and misunderstood areas of copyright protection is internet publication. Contrary to the wording, however, whether materials are public has no relationship to whether they fall into the Public Domain. This mistaken notion has somehow led many to believe that everything on the internet is public and therefore in the Public Domain and freely usable without permission. This is completely false. In other words, unless the website ends in .gov (government created websites), it is not public domain and cannot be re-published without the author’s approval. This applies to pictures, music, and videos that are on the internet. Placing copyrighted works onto the internet is considered publication. If copyright protected works are published on the internet without the author’s permission, it could result in fines.
If you are unsure whether a work that you are using is public domain, contact a copyright attorney for assistance or attempt to obtain permission from the author.