What is the public domain?

What is the public domain?

On January 1 every year, a legal transformation occurs in all the countries that have signed the Berne Convention. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, thousands of published works from all over the world become copyright-free. As soon as the year begins, you’re allowed to reuse and take advantage of those books, songs, movies and illustrations without charge. How is that possible?

Welcome to the public domain

The copyright legislation in each country grants authors a series of exclusive patrimonial rights as well as moral rights. Those rights enable creators to earn a living from their art.

But copyright remains in effect for a limited time only. The Berne Convention specifies a minimum timeframe covering the author’s lifetime plus the subsequent 50 years so that the heirs can benefit from the economic rights related to the publication or use of the work. However, many countries have decided to implement longer copyright timeframes that can last up to 70 years or even 100 years after the author’s death.

What happens after that timeframe expires?

At that point, the works become copyright-free. In other words, they “enter the public domain.” From then on, those works become part of society’s cultural heritage. We’re all free to use them as we see fit. There are no royalties to be paid. You don’t need to request permission. The works belong to all of us collectively.

As you can see, in addition to protecting creators’ rights, copyright legislation ensures that our cultural heritage is preserved by guaranteeing that a public domain exists.

Public domain in Canada

In general, Canada’s Copyright Act applies during the author’s lifetime and for another 50 years after the author’s death. If there is more than one author, the year of reference is the last remaining author’s date of death. For posthumous works, copyright remains in effect for the 50 years following the year of publication.

When it comes to the copyright timeframe, Canada's legislation is different from what applies in the U.S. and the European Union. In those countries, copyright lasts up to 70 years after the year of the author’s death.

That’s why, on January 1 every year, thousands of works become copyright-free when they’re used in Canada even though they’re still protected by copyright in other countries.

Changes expected to our Copyright Act

Following the signature of the new Canada–United States–Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) in 2018, Canada’s Copyright Act will have to be amended to bring it in line with our commercial partners’ legislation. In compliance with CUSMA, the copyright timeframe in Canada will be extended by 20 years so it covers the author’s lifetime plus 70 years.

The specifics of that transition have not yet been decided. They’ll have to be determined by a vote of the House of Commons.