What do Louis Armstrong, Jim Morrison, and Igor Stravinsky all share in common? They each died in 1971, making their original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression (their copyrights) fall into the public domain. This is because such works received a lesser duration of protection than works now do. The Public Domain Review has been publishing their online magazine for sometime and we look forward every year to their January 1st announcement of all the works falling into what is referred to as the “public domain.” But what exactly, does that mean?
Public domain generally means that works have been around so long that they comprise the body of collective works that formulate a culture in which new works arise. Prior works in the public domain may be used as inspiration, motivation, and fodder for transformative works that lead to new voices. What falls into public domain and enters are two different things. Lawyers often add value where the validity and duration of copyright are at stake. It is always wise to run a copyright clearance search for works if you intend to distribute worldwide, since copyright terms vary from nation to nation.
In sum, a work currently in the public domain has either reached its term (expired) or has otherwise been legislated into it. One may use the copyright in works that are in the public domain without consent by the copyright owner though it is advisable to inquire into other rights, such as personal rights and other rights which may attach to works being adapted or reinvented in some new medium. For example, an audiovisual clip of a performance by an orchestra of Igor Stravinsky’s music will not create a (synch) licensing fee, but you may still need to request a master use license for the sound recording and obtain waivers for personal appearances by orchestra members to post the video to your YouTube channel.