Re: PDFs on the Web in "public domain"?

Subject: Re: PDFs on the Web in "public domain"?
From: Johndan Johnson-Eilola <johndan -at- slic -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 12 Nov 2003 04:02:38 -0500

I missed the beginning of this thread, so I apologize in advance if I'm missing something here. But some quick notes:

1. As Geoff says, even if a PDF claims to be in the public domain, it might not be. Check around to be sure. I've seen people claim images of Mickey Mouse were in the public domain. Disney didn't spend all those millions of dollars lobbying for perpetually increasing copyright protection in order to see Mickey reproduced freely.

2. If something is actually placed in the "public domain", there are *no* restrictions on use (at least in terms of copyright). So a citation isn't legally required. Depending on your users, though, you may want to include a citation just to avoid confusion about where something came from and why you're using it freely. (There's some controversy about whether or not one can actually place materials in the public domain aside from by letting copyright expire, which might take 100+ years. Because the author is relinquishing *all* rights, that counter-argument goes, another person can step in and claim copyright. If the author does place restrictions on use, then the material isn't technically "public domain". See the Creative Commons note below.

3. Based on Point 2, Fair Use isn't really an issue, because Fair Use is a legal exception to standard copyright. In general, though, Fair Use provides the ability to use copyrighted material for very specific cases: for limited educational purposes, for criticism of something, and for parody. (Note that the educational allowances appear to be rapidly disappearing due to lobbying. Even Stanford's site, mentioned below, which used to spend a great deal of time discussing educational exceptions, now concentrates on parody and comment/criticism.)

For more info, see Stanford's Fair Use website: <>. This area changes pretty rapidly (especially in terms of computer media), getting to be more restrictive all the time. For more info on how to allow broader types of re-use of materials you've authored, see the interesting work being done at Creative Commons <>.

(Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer and I don't even play one on TV. In fact, the less the legal system knows about me the better.)

- Johndan



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