Copyright:Support Guides/Public Domain/Adaptions Translations Scholarly Editions

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Copyright comes into effect as soon as a work is expressed in a fixed form (e.g., paper, film, or digital media). If a work subsequently undergoes significant alterations, however, then the result may be considered a new work with a separate term of copyright and different copyright ownership. Accordingly, even if an original work is in the Public Domain, modern reproductions of that work may still be protected by copyright.

A good example of this would be Shakespeare’s plays: although copyright in his plays expired long ago, many of the published editions of his plays contain added original materials (such as annotations, translations, footnotes, prefaces etc.) that are protected by copyright because the authors have used skill and judgment in creating the new material. This creates a new copyright in the additional original works, but not in the underlying text of the original work.

To use another example, the painting of the Mona Lisa is in the Public Domain, but a photograph depicting the painting can count as a different work with a separate term of copyright if the photograph has sufficient originality. If that photograph is subsequently published in a book, moreover, then the published version of the photograph has yet another term of copyright (namely, that of the book in which it was published).

For this reason, it is always important to ask (1) which expression (e.g., version or edition) of a work you are using and (2) when was that expression published or created. The answers to these questions are essential to determining whether or not the work is actually in the Public Domain.

When using works from public websites and other online resources, it is also important to check whether there is a “Terms of Use” agreement or other legal notice governing how the works can be used. For more information on this, please see the section on Public Domain on the Web.

If you would like assistance in determining whether or not a work is in the Public Domain, please contact us at copyright.services@ubc.ca.