Public Domain Explained: Cooks Source Argument Is “Nonsense”

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After the Cooks Source Magazine email that angered the entire Internet, we’ve wondered if editor Judith Griggs really had any right to claim that the Internet was a free-for-all for print publishers. But what does “public domain” really mean?

Items in the public domain are works that are no longer protected by intellectual property rights, like copyright, because the original rights have expired or works where the rights have been forfeited by the creator. Stuart Karle, an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and the former general counsel for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones publications, said this normally means that the copyright has expired or the work was published by bodies like the U.S. government, which does not assert interest in anything they publish as a matter of statute. Copyright for items published after January 1, 1978, like Monica Gaudio’s piece, typically lasts the lifetime of the author plus an additional 70 years.”Basically, it’s really old stuff,” Karle said about works considered inside the public domain. (Read our exclusive interview with Gaudio here)

Karle argues that Griggs’ assertion that anything on the Internet can be republished for free is like borrowing a book from the public library, tearing out a page and republishing that in your own work. “The internet changes only so much,” he said. “There’s no question of publishing your original work on the internet does not amount to giving up your copyright.” The fact that Griggs acknowledged she knew she did not create the original work, Karle says, indicates that she could have clearly seen an article with a byline attached, all clues that this property was not hers for the taking. “The question here,” he said, “Is, ‘Was it somebody else’s?'”

Because Gaudio wrote original material about her experiences, the writing would be deemed her property. Even if Griggs only quoted parts of the article, there could be fair use consequences. But because Cooks Source quoted a substantial part of the piece, Gaudio can file for a copyright claim, which would result in her being able to ask for damages or monetary compensation. “What [Griggs] is saying, if you put it on the Internet that’s public domain, that’s nonsense,” Karle said. “That’s just wrong.”