Public Domain Works

Note: I am not an attorney. The following are generalizations only based on my study of copyright law and are not meant to be construed as legal advice. If you have a question, consult a competent attorney specializing in copyrights and intellectual property law.

Works which are no longer covered under copyright protection or whose authors/copyright holders have waived their rights are considered works "in the public domain." This means they may be copied, converted to charts, photographed as finished pieces of stitchery and used in whatever way is desired, or otherwise distributed to the public--for profit or non-profit--without further permission. Eventually, all works will fall into the public domain because copyright is not eternal.

This means that you can take old charts--such as the Victorian ones for Berlin work--and convert them to modern format and sell them to the public or to a magazine. You can take a photo of such a work and freely distribute it in a retail needlework calendar.

It also means that you can take a public domain image--such as Thomas Nast's drawings of Santa Claus-- and convert it to charts and sell to your heart's content.

If the Copyright Office has no information that the author is still alive and it has been 75 years since copyright protection was first granted or 100 years since the creation of the piece, the piece falls into the public domain. Copyright protection has expired, and the author is presumed dead. So, anything copyrighted in 1922 or before is public domain (provided the author is presumed dead by the Copyright Office).

What about charts available "free" at shops? These are still copyrighted to the designer. The designer, however, has added a permission statement on the piece saying that the chart may be reproduced freely (which is why the shop is able to do it). Note that this statement is -not- the same thing as placing the chart in the public domain. (Sometimes the designer sells the rights to a manufacturer, usually one whose products are used in the piece, and the manufacturer is actually the entity which distributes the charts. If the designer has sold "all rights," then the manufacturer now holds copyright, and it is the one giving permission for free reproduction.)

Usually there is a proviso on such charts that they may not be "sold or kitted." This prevents someone from reproducing the chart (which he is legally allowed to do because the designer granted permission) and selling it; or from reproducing, gathering supplies needed, and selling the resulting kit.

Increasingly there is the notation that only shops may reproduce these charts. Although goodwill is a motive, designers grant reproduction rights to these charts primarily for marketing reasons: the shop owners use the free charts as an inducement to get customers to come into their shops to buy. If needlework guilds reproduce these charts in their newsletters or hand them out at meetings, there is no motive for the stitchers to go to the shops to look for the latest one.

If you have a free chart you want to distribute to fellow stitchers and it says that only needlework shops may reproduce it, contact the designer and ask for a one-time permission. Include the number of people who would receive it and the use to which it would be put. For example, you're more likely to receive permission for 100 copies for distribution to your individual guild members than for 500 copies for a hospital auxiliary fund-raiser book available to the general public.

copyright 1996-2003, Martha Beth Lewis

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