Do We Understand Public Domain?

A non-fiction manuscript was submitted to me fully formatted with fancy fonts and several hundred images. Do NOT do this. It really is a waste of your time because:

1. I don’t need you to help me visualize your MS as a “real” book. I can do that on my own. It’s part of my job. Also, I’m used to visualizing from standard MS formatting. If you get too fancy, it throws off my calculations.

2. Chances are we won’t use those images you’ve spent hours searching for and placing into your document due to copyright and other restrictions.

3. Unless you’re a graphic designer, you have probably not chosen the best fonts for your book, nor correctly used white space. There is a science and a psychology to this.

4. On the rare chance that we do use those same fonts and/or images, you’ve probably used Word or WordPerfect to format your document. We don’t. All that stuff has to be redone in typesetting.

5. There are several more reasons, but I’ve gotten sidetracked. This post is about public domain.

So, back to this submission. I liked the premise of the book, and decided to overlook the fact that most of the author’s images were not print quality and would never work in a published book. A few of the images were okay, so I asked the author if he’d gotten all the necessary permissions to use the artwork in his book. He assured me they were all in public domain.

I did a quick flip through and found images by several popular, currently alive and recently published artists whose copyrights are fully active and enforce. Seems the author thought that if he found the images posted somewhere on the Internet, that meant they were public domain and could be used any way he wished.


Public domain does not mean it’s been posted in a public forum and therefore can be used indiscriminately by the public. Public domain means the copyright on a piece of work has expired. There are specific criteria to determine if a copyright has expired or not. It is the author’s job to find out what that criteria is, and to determine if it applies to the quotations and/or artwork they want to use. (Or if I’m picking the artwork, it’s my job to figure it out.)

If you are going to use quotes and artwork originally created by someone other than yourself, you MUST do the research to determine if the copyright is still valid. And if it is, you MUST get permission from the copyright holder to use those quotes and artwork. Failure to do so is against the law and will get all of us in big trouble.

I’m not certain if the copyrights for artwork are exactly the same as copyrights on written work, because I’ve never used old artwork in my projects. However, I would imagine they’re going to be similar. Here is a quick chart to help you determine if a published written work is in public domain or not.

For more details, I recommend The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers by Lloyd J. Jassin and Steven C. Schechter

For complete information (assuming you speak governmentese), you can go straight to the source: the US Copyright Office