Many people find the concepts of “fair use” and “public domain” to be simple on the surface but confusing once they get beyond the most basic definitions.
Both of these concepts are connected to copyright, which in itself is a simple term with nonetheless complex consequences related to national and international law.
Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.
The concept of “fair use” is what helps determine when an author should request reprint permission for using part or all of a previously published work (a poem, a song lyric, an excerpt from a book, etc.). The legal website Nolo.com offers helpful guidelines, including this principle to help you decide if a use of copyrighted material is fair or not:
The more material you take, the less likely it is that your use will be a fair use. As a general rule, never: quote more than a few successive paragraphs from a book or article, take more than one chart or diagram, include an illustration or other artwork in a book or newsletter without the artist’s permission, or quote more than one or two lines from a poem.
Works in the public domain can be reprinted and reused without restriction. How to determine if a work is in the public domain can be tricky. Here’s a detailed chart you may wish to consult. The author, Peter B. Hirtle, provides copyright terms for everything from works published without copyright notice to works originally published without notice but later renewed with copyright registration. His footnotes give many details on the legal history of copyright, the interactions between US and international law, and other fascinating facts.
For more on copyright, particularly on how it affects our everyday lives, see this entertaining and informative illustrated post by Nancy Sims, the copyright librarian at the University of Minnesota, “Copyright in Your Personal Life.”
Note: This post does not constitute professional legal advice. If you are in need of legal advice, please consult an attorney.