Public domain is a type of intellectual property where the copyright has expired. Some material, like that created by the government, is never copyrighted, and can be used outright. (This is called public domain.) There are different forms of these materials, including photos, films, and books.
You may use these materials “as is” to create your products, or you may create what is called a “derivative” work. A derivative work is where you create a new work out of the old work by adding to it, putting it in a new form, like audio, or just completely rewriting the work to become your own.
The advantage of using this type of material is really obvious: you are using material that has already been proven. You don’t have to come up with something new. All you have to do is take it and turn whatever it is into a product.
The disadvantage is that many works, especially books, have been republished, exactly as is, so there may be a glut in the market for the work you want to publish. Don’t worry about it though. There’s so much of this material available that there’s plenty to go around that can be used.
Now, before you grab the first thing available, you want to do a few things first. You’ll want to start by doing a search in the search engines. There are a lot of really good sites out there on the topic of public domain that you can use to help you find what you need. These sites will explain in more depth than this article exactly what materials qualify as public domain, so make sure you consult one or two of these sites before using anything. You don’t want to run afoul of copyright law by using work that’s still under copyright.
Also, as you search, you will find sites that actually offer public domain materials, like the Gutenberg project. Make sure you bookmark these sites so that you can go back later and search for materials related to your project.
Understand the rules of expired copyright first because this is crucial. Any works published before 1927 are generally expired, so it’s usually OK to use them. Anything published after that and you’ll want to check the source to see if it’s copyrighted. In the case of government documents and resources, these will usually be in the public domains, which means they’re available for your use.
I can’t stress enough that the most important thing you can do here is to make sure the work you want to use is in the public domain. You can determine this by doing your research.
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