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Works in the public domain have no copyrights, or have a copyright which is owned by the general public. Public domain content can be copied, reworked, and republished freely.
How the Public Domain Works
Entering the Public Domain by Default
Works automatically enter the public domain when their copyrights expire. Generally, works copyrighted by a single person (unless they use a pseudoname) last until after the original creator dies, while works copyrighted by an organization or by an individual using a pseudoname last seventy years. However, due to temporary extensions to the Copyright Laws, no textual works created after 1923 are in the public domain.
Submission to the Public Domain
Alternatively, works can be entered into the public domain by their creators. Because of the nature of the public domain, this amounts to giving up virtually all control of these works to the general public. (Although also see Ethical Rights?.) There are various reasons why creators do this, as discussed below.
What Are the Benefits of the Public Domain?
Because copyrights are intended to allow content creators to make money off of their work, it may seem strange that anyone would voluntarily submit their work to the public domain. To understand why this happens we need to understand what uses and benefits the public domain offers.
First of all, because public domain content has no copyrights, it makes it much easier to share with others. While you generally cannot send copies of someone else's copyrighted book to your friends, public domain books can be copied freely. In this way, public domain works are similar to copyrighted works under a Libre (Free) License, and are useful for creators who care more about getting their creations out to the public than in using them to make money.
Second, public domain content is easy to quote and cite. With copyrighted works, permission is usually necessary to use an excerpt from a work. This makes it more challenging for creators to quote and cite other works freely, because they must find and contact each work's publisher, and then hope for a favorable response. With public domain content, it isn't necessary to ask for permission, because there are no copyrights on the work.
Third, public domain content is freely available to change and republish. This is also true of most copyrighted content under a Libre (Free) License, but libre content usually comes with restrictions to lock all edited content into a similar license, or to force editors to credit all of the creators who came before. Public domain content helps avoid the problems libre content can create, such as by giving editors the legal freedom to credit only those prior creators which would be appropriate in the present work (or none at all, although this could be seen as Plagiarism).
Fourth, public domain content can be used as a starting point for future works. Because public domain content can be copyrighted if enough changes (replacements, additions, and subtractions) are made to warrant its being considered a new work, public domain content is uniquely suited to help and promote new content creation, both public domain and copyrighted. Creators can take portions of a public domain work and edit them for optimal use in their own work, and to make them their own for copyright purposes. Creators can also mix content together from multiple public domain sources, and this could be considered a new work. These new works may then be published as copyrighted works, or submitted in turn to the public domain for others to reuse freely.
Because of the freedom the public domain provides, public domain content is best suited for the advancement of knowledge, information, and technology. Although public domain content is comparable to content under a Libre (Free) License, it comes with more freedom, especially for content creators. For these reasons, some creators have kindly submitted their hard work to the public domain upon publication.