Public domain material is content that's no longer copyrighted. That means you are allowed to use the work for creating your own personal or commercial projects. The potential problem comes when finding out whether the document in question is actually copyright free. It's not always clear, even on copyright search sites.
Numerous individuals and publishing companies have reprinted old works like the G. A. Henty books for young folks and Charlotte Mason's educational books. Others take bits and pieces of art or photos and create totally new collections. Magazine covers become artwork, old ads hang in restaurants, vintage graphics are transformed into patterns for needlework. The sky's the limit when it comes to repackaging public domain material!
So, as long as a book, article, movie, etc. is truly in the public domain, you can use all or part of it in your own products. You can even reprint the work and sell it as a tangible product. Always make absolutely certain, though, that any work you use is, indeed, copyright- free so you don't get into legal issues.
Ignorance of the law can shut down your entire business! Take the few extra minutes to learn the ins and outs of making sure what you want to use is, indeed, copyright-free material. Don't take someone else's word that a piece of work is in the public domain either. Locate and keep a copy of proof if you're going to use the work in your own product.
There's a huge misunderstanding going around right now online that all you have to do to use vintage magazines is to do your own copyright search at copyright (.gov) or other research sites, and then if there's no "RE" beside the magazines, they weren't renewed, and you're free to use them.
This is false information!
I spoke to three separate lawyers on the topic, as I had bought hundreds of magazines, and was prepared to use them. Some little voice inside told me to check for legal purposes, and I was shocked by what the lawyers told me.
Did you know that a work can be copyrighted and not registered? This issue poses a huge problem for those who have researched copyright (.gov) and then took content for their site just because the magazine didn't appear to be registered.
If you are using any book or magazine content you haven't had thoroughly searched (from all three databases at the Library of Congress), then you could actually be using content illegally.
Bottom line - stay legal, keep your profits. Always have a formal legal search of all databases to make sure you are not using copyrighted content.
Lisa Rae Preston invites you to download your free copy of the Ultimate Public Domain Sourcebook - more than 300 pages of sources for all things public domain, including books, software, comics, radio shows, graphics and videos! http://www.pdsourcebook.com
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