Public domain includes works that are not protected by copyright. This means a work can be used any way you see fit, without asking permission or paying for it. Lovely! Once a work is in the public domain, it stays there, and will never (or never again) be under restrictions of copyright law.
It sounds too good to be true, you say? Remember, this applies to the original public domain work. If a work has been altered, modified, updated, or changed in any way, copyright restrictions will apply. Be careful!
The important question, then, is "how do I know if something is in the public domain?"
Again, a few basics for those of us in the real world.
Public domain includes:
- Facts! Good ol' facts cannot be copyrighted. Notes, interpretations, descriptions, etc about them can be, however.
- Non-human created works. (If you have caught yourself wondering if a chimpanzee wrote it, and it turns out they actually did, it's in the public domain! Chances are, you won't want to use it, though)
- "Works created by the U.S. Federal government employees during the course of their duties" (Simpson, 2005). Yes, you can dress up and recite the Gettysburg Address to teach about the Civil War.
- Works published before January 1, 1923 (This may not be so helpful or relevant to those of us teaching younger students)
Of course, there are many other ways a work can work its way into public domain, but they are less common, and less likely to be encountered in our classrooms.
(Want more information? Refer to Ch 2 of the Simpson text.)