Legal Concepts

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Read more about the fundamental concepts that inspire Creative Commons: the public domain, the commons, open content, and intellectual property conservancies.

The Public Domain

Creativity and innovation rely on a rich heritage of prior intellectual endeavor. We stand on the shoulders of giants by revisiting, reusing, and transforming the ideas and works of our peers and predecessors. Digital communications promise a new explosion of this kind of collaborative creative activity. But at the same time, expanding intellectual property protection leaves fewer and fewer creative works in the “public domain” — the body of creative material unfettered by law and, to quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “free as the air to common use.”

Until 1976, creative works were not protected by U.S. copyright law unless their authors took the trouble to publish a copyright notice along with them. Works not affixed with a notice passed into the public domain. Following legislative changes in 1976 and 1988, creative works are now automatically copyrighted. We believe that many people would not choose this “copyright by default” if they had an easy mechanism for turning their work over to the public or exercising some but not all of their legal rights. It is Creative Commons’ goal to help create such a mechanism.

Background on and examples of the value of the public domain

  • “Cultivating the Public Domain,” Creative Commons White Paper.
  • Conference on the Public Domain, Duke Law School (collected conference papers).
  • “The Public Domain in Copyright Law,” Edward Samuels, 41 Journal of the Copyright Society 137 (1993).
  • “The Public Domain in Genomics,” Rebecca A. Eisenberg (2000).
  • “Making the Public Domain Public,” Robert A. Baron (revised Apr. 28, 2000).
  • Project Gutenberg
  • Eldritch Press

The Commons

Open Content

Intellectual Property Conservancies