1. IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN
What it means: In the Public Domain refers to a work that is no longer protected by copyright law and, therefore, is now available, without fees, to the public. As is the bulk of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, Sherlock Holmes stories and key elements, which have passed into the Public Domain. Meaning, writers are now free to use certain names and key elements in their own works without prior written consent and payment of fees to an estate.
How it is mis-used: Many authors are under the mistaken belief that in the Public Domain, is how they should refer to their work(s) offered via a library, online, or as downloadable content. This is not the case. Work(s) available to the public or publicly available can, in some instances, be free, but are usually paid-for works … and therefore, not in the public domain. As in, absolutely free for anyone to do what they want with.
2. FAIR USE
What it means: There are parameters as to what someone can, and cannot do (an infringement of the copyright) with a work but, within the limit of the law, people have a ‘fair right’ use as long as there is no infringement of the Copyright holders’ rights.
How it is mis-used: ‘Fair Use’ has become synonymous with the theft of work, online. Where someone (quite often living in another country) uploads a work to their website, and even though they might credit you as being the author, have published the entire work without your consent. Or is as usual, without credit to you, the author, even going so far as to claim the work as their own.
It is usual to assume ‘Fair Use’ is for quoting and or publishing brief excerpt and or paragraphs, with relevant permission to do so, when reviewing and or writing about an author’s work.
What it means: A work, the minute you have written it, is copyrighted to you. It is a defined set of ‘rights’, covered by law, that a creator has in a creative work of authorship, intellectual property, that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, whether it’s a book, music, painting, software, or movie.
Copyrights are fixed in law, have a length of enforcement depending on the medium and, where a written work is concerned, starts the minute you start writing. But be aware, only when a work is finished and published do those rights have extra weight. Meaning, at any time along that road to publication, those rights have grey areas. As in characters and names, situations, integral story elements, and setting that you think are wholly unique to you and your work, that might not be. Someone might have, independently, come up with similar key elements at the same time as you, and yet, managed to get published before you.
It’s one of those niggling reasons Agents and Publishers have you sign a ‘waiver’ when sending them an MS to read and evaluate.
No one wants to be accused of stealing. You included. Be aware of your rights, be aware of what copyright is, and how it’s applied.