Visual artists sometimes incorporate quotes into their work. Anytime you use somebody else’s words, you run the risk of stepping on their copyright. One excellent way to get around the need to obtain copyright permission is to use only quotes that are in the public domain.
What’s public domain?
Simply put, it’s content out there in the world that you can use without copyright restriction. Facts about the world are in the public domain. Ideas too. It’s a copyright truism that only the particular way an idea is expressed gets copyright protection, not the underlying concept.
A big part of the public domain consists of artworks—novels, poems, paintings, photographs, and the like—that were once under copyright but no longer are. Many of the greatest works ever created are in the public domain because their copyright expired. That means you’re free to use their content in any way you wish. And there are a lot of great public domain quotes to choose from. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” is public domain. Ben Franklin wrote that back in the 1700s. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” is from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” likewise public domain.
A key thing about the public domain is that nobody’s in charge of deciding whether a particular work is in the public domain. The U.S. Copyright Office doesn’t keep a list of registered works whose copyright term is expired. If you want to know if a work’s no longer under copyright, you’ve got to figure it out by applying a set of rules. Otherwise, you might use a quote in your artwork, put copies of that artwork up for sale, and get a cease and desist letter from the copyright holder. So it’s better to know whether a quote is public domain before you’ve spent a bunch of time incorporating it into your work.
If you’re making a painting or other visual work that incorporates a quotation, and you intend to sell copies, you want to first ask yourself where you’re going to offer these copies for sale. If you’re only selling in the United States, then U.S. copyright law is what you need to look at. If you’re going to sell to other countries, then you’ll want to look at the rules in the particular countries you’re aiming at.
Figuring out how long a particular work is under copyright can get pretty complicated. But there are two handy rules that you can use to separate a big part of the public domain world for your use.
If you’re selling copies in the United States only, then answer the following question:
Was the text you’d like to use published in the United States before 1923?
If so, it’s in the public domain.
If you’re selling copies outside the United States, then answer these two questions:
Has the author been dead for more than 70 years?
Was the work published in the author’s lifetime?
If the answer to both questions is yes, it’s in the public domain.
These are simple rules meant to get you to freely usable content with a minimum of research. But know that there are a lot, really, a lot of works that are also in the public domain under other more complicated rules. For example, in the United States works registered from 1923 through 1963 lapsed into the public domain if the registration wasn’t renewed in the 28th year. But figuring out whether the copyright was renewed can be tricky and time consuming. Likewise, in some countries, a work goes into the public domain in less than 70 years after the author’s death. Determining the particular country’s rule and researching the author’s life and the publication history of the work are all do-able, but are more complicated than the simple, turn-key method outlined above.