10 Mistakes Commonly Made Using Public Domain Content

Yesterday I chatted a bit about what Public Domain Content is and how to use it for your business.

But you have to be careful…

There are many mistakes you can make using public domain content that you might not realize.  Some of these mistakes may only result with a mere slap on the wrist, while others could end up costing you tens of thousands of dollars.

Here’s 10 mistakes commonly made using public domain content:

Mistake 1: Not Checking the Copyrighta warning sign for internet users

Just because something “should” be in the public domain theoretically doesn’t mean it actually is. Perhaps the copyright has been renewed. Perhaps you’ve got the dates wrong. Perhaps the work you’re using falls under a strange legal loophole that you weren’t aware of.

Getting sued for copyright infringement isn’t fun. Not only are you looking at huge settlements and fines; you’re also looking at huge legal bills. Protect yourself by checking (and double checking) the copyright.

Mistake 2:  Checking Yourself

Trying to check whether or not a book is in the public domain is quite a complex process. While it’s possible to do it yourself, it’s likely to take an enormous amount of time. You’re also apt to make mistakes, since you’re not actually trained in doing that research.

Hire an attorney to do it for you. In the unlikely event that they make a mistake and you get sued, you’ll be able to counter-sue your attorney, who’ll be able to pay you out of their malpractice or liability insurance. In short, you really protect yourself by hiring a lawyer.

Mistake 3:  Publishing as a Sole Proprietor

If you publish your public domain work under your own name, as a sole proprietor or under a “Doing Business As,” you risk a personal lawsuit. A lawsuit could take you for every penny you own.

If you publish under an LLC, an S-Corp or a C-Corp, you’re protected. If you get sued, you’re protected by your corporate veil and can only be sued for the money you have in your corporation, rather than what’s in your personal bank accounts.

Mistake 4:  Not Copyrighting Derivative Works

If you take a copyrighted work and make changes to it, that’s now your work. You own the copyrights! Put your name on it and put your own copyright on it. Don’t let other people think it’s public domain anymore.

What makes a derivative work? Adding explanations. Changing the texts. Taking old English and turning it into modern day English. Anything that changes the old text is considered derivative works.

Mistake 5:  Thinking No © Means No Copyright

Just because a website doesn’t have the copyright symbol there doesn’t mean it’s not copyrighted. In fact, works are copyrighted by default unless otherwise specified. If a work is published in the last 50 years, which absolutely means any content published for the web, it’s safe to assume it’s copyrighted.

Mistake 6:  Using Copyrighted Images

Bloggers and website owners have historically been a little lax around their copyright policies. People would often use other people’s copyrighted images, thinking that the likelihood of them getting caught using a copyrighted image was slim.

That’s changed now!

Image searching tools have gotten more and more sophisticated. Google Images makes a free image search tool that allows copyright holders to find anyone using their photo. More complex photo recognition algorithms can allow people to search specific industries for derivative works of their images.

In short, use public domain photos or paid stock photos. It doesn’t pay to use copyrighted images without permission.

Mistake 7:  Confusing Creative Commons With Public Domain

While creative commons licensing can be very similar to public domain, it has some key differences. Some CC works can be used freely with no attribution, just like public domain works. Others require attribution, or are meant only for non-profit or educational use. Make sure you check the exact license before using these images.

Mistake 8:  Low Perceived Value

One thing you have to manage with publishing public domain works is perceived value. Will people see your content as valuable, since they can just get it themselves for free?

If you’re bringing your own public domain works to market by sourcing your own content (E.g. finding old books and having them transcribed) rather than finding it online, you don’t have to worry about this. But if you’re republishing something that a lot of people have seen already, it can be a real concern.

Make sure you add value to whatever you’re doing, so people can see you really created something worthwhile.

Mistake 9:  Saying “Not My Copyright”

One of the most common mistakes people make is the assumption that they can use something just by saying it’s not their copyright. For example, if you hop over to YouTube you’ll quickly find thousands of videos from people saying, “I don’t claim any copyright on this.”

The truth is, if you use someone’s copyrighted work, you’re breaking the law, whether or not you claim to own the copyright. Using just a small portion or putting a disclaimer doesn’t change this fact.

Mistake 10:  Only Searching on the Internet

It’s true that the internet has an enormous supply of public domain resources. However, much of the real gold you’ll find is actually offline. Online public domain works have been used by thousands. If you look offline however, you may just find the only copy to a rare book that many people would gladly pay for.

searching at a library


What’s to come:

50 Sources of Public Domain Content

50 Ways to Use Public Domain Content for Your Business

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