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Public Domain vs. Copyright: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on November 14, 2023
Public Domain refers to works without exclusive intellectual property rights, while Copyright protects a creator's rights to their work.

Key Differences

Public Domain encompasses creative works that aren't protected by intellectual property laws. This could mean that either the work was never under copyright, or its copyright has expired. Being in the Public Domain signifies that the work can be freely used by anyone for any purpose, without seeking permission or paying royalties.
Copyright, in contrast, represents the legal right of creators over their original works. When a work is copyrighted, it means the owner has the exclusive right to distribute, reproduce, perform, or adapt the work. Others cannot use copyrighted material without permission, often necessitating licenses or royalty payments.
Public Domain is the realm of cultural and intellectual works accessible to all. Old classics like William Shakespeare's plays or Ludwig van Beethoven's compositions are part of the Public Domain because their copyright terms have ended. This allows educators, artists, and the general public to use, share, and build upon these works without legal constraints.
Copyright aims to incentivize creativity by granting creators exclusive rights for a limited time. This period varies by jurisdiction, but after it expires, the work transitions to the Public Domain. This balance ensures creators can benefit from their work while eventually enriching the public's shared cultural heritage.

Comparison Chart


Works not protected by intellectual property laws
Legal right of creators over their original works


Freely available for use by anyone
Restricted; requires permission or licensing


Infinite; no exclusivity
Limited time duration, after which it may expire


Shakespeare's plays, older classical compositions
New novels, modern music, recent films


Allow public unrestricted access to works
Incentivize and protect creators' original works

Public Domain and Copyright Definitions

Public Domain

Freely accessible content without copyrights.
Since its copyright expired, Moby Dick is in the Public Domain.


Legal protection for original creative works.
Authors secure a copyright for their books upon publication.

Public Domain

Realm of creative works available for public use.
Ancient folklore tales are often in the Public Domain.


Ensures creators control over reproduction and adaptation.
A copyrighted software cannot be duplicated without permission.

Public Domain

Works not under intellectual property protection.
Most works from the 19th century are now in the Public Domain.


A tool for protecting intellectual creations.
Artists hold the copyright to their paintings, limiting reproductions.

Public Domain

Intellectual territory with no ownership restrictions.
Old patents, once expired, enter the Public Domain.


Exclusive rights granted to a work's creator.
Musicians control the distribution of their copyrighted songs.

Public Domain

Content that doesn't require licensing or fees for use.
Artists often use Public Domain paintings as inspiration.


The legal right granted to an author, composer, playwright, publisher, or distributor to exclusive publication, production, sale, or distribution of a literary, musical, dramatic, or artistic work.


Of or relating to a copyright
Copyright law.
A copyright agreement.


Protected by copyright
Permission to publish copyright material.


To secure a copyright for.


(uncountable) The right by law to be the entity which determines who may publish, copy and distribute a piece of writing, music, picture or other work of authorship.
Copyright is a separate legal area from trademarks.


(countable) Such an exclusive right as it pertains to one or more specific works.
The artist lost the copyrights to her songs when she signed the contract.
The images are still copyright of the original artist.


A violation of copyright law; copyright infringement.


To obtain or secure a copyright for some literary or other artistic work.


The right of an author or his assignee, under statute, to print and publish his literary or artistic work, exclusively of all other persons. This right may be had in maps, charts, engravings, plays, and musical compositions, as well as in books.


To secure a copyright on.


A document granting exclusive right to publish and sell literary or musical or artistic work


Secure a copyright on a written work;
Did you copyright your manuscript?


A form of intellectual property law.
Movies have copyrights preventing unauthorized distribution.


Can works in the Public Domain be copyrighted again?

No, once a work is in the Public Domain, it cannot be copyrighted again.

How long does a copyright last?

Duration varies by jurisdiction, but it's often the creator's life plus 70 years.

Can I freely use a work in the Public Domain for commercial purposes?

Yes, works in the Public Domain can be used for any purpose.

What happens when a copyright expires?

When a copyright expires, the work enters the Public Domain.

Are all old works in the Public Domain?

Not necessarily. Some might have extended or renewed copyrights.

How do I know if a work is in the Public Domain?

Research its publication date and copyright laws pertinent to its origin.

What is "fair use" in copyright?

Fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes like criticism or education.

Why is copyright important?

Copyright incentivizes creativity by ensuring creators can benefit from their works.

How can I copyright my work?

In many places, copyright is automatic, but registration can offer additional legal protections.

Do all countries have the same copyright laws?

No, copyright laws vary by country, though many have similar foundational principles.

Can Public Domain works be sold?

Yes, while the work itself is free, you can charge for your method of distribution or added value.

Can I copyright a work that's based on Public Domain content?

While the original remains in the Public Domain, any new, original additions can be copyrighted.

If a work is in the Public Domain in one country, is it the same everywhere?

Not necessarily. Public Domain status can vary depending on national laws.

Can I copyright an idea?

No, copyright protects the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves.

Is copyright automatically applied to a new original work?

Yes, copyright typically applies upon the creation and fixation of the work.

Can I lose my copyright?

Copyrights can expire or be transferred, but they can't be lost unless willingly given up.

Is there a global database of Public Domain works?

No single database exists, but there are many resources and libraries that curate Public Domain content.

Are copyrights transferable?

Yes, copyrights can be sold, bequeathed, or transferred.

Do I need to display the © symbol to have copyright?

No, while the symbol informs about the copyright, the absence of it doesn't mean there's no copyright.

Who oversees copyright disputes?

Copyright disputes are typically handled by courts, based on respective national laws.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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