I am considering the use of some literature, for use on products on an e-commerce site. For the most part, the literature is classified as being in the public domain. Thus, free of copyright.

For a minority of these pieces of literature, they are in the public domain for some territories whilst they are protected by copyright within other territories.

From an e-commerce perspective, what does this mean? Is it simply a case that products with said literature can only be sold within the territories where they are in the public domain whilst being unavailable where copyright is active?

Follow on Question:

If this is the case, how could an e-commerce site 'do their bit' to respect the copyright? Sure, a site could limit access based on geo-IP, etc., but this could be circumvented by the potential customer using a VPN or masking their IP to an IP of the location where the product is in the public domain.

I am also finding it time consuming to check every territory. As such, is there some kind of central database which could be checked to see if there are any active global copyrights?

  • 1
    Thinking about it. Conceptually it is a much more difficult question to answer than to ask. The form of the media provided (e.g. ordering a book to be delivered v. an eBook) also matters a lot.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 19, 2018 at 23:32
  • 1
    "As such, is there some kind of Central Database, which could be checked to see if there are any active Global Copyrights?" No.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 19, 2018 at 23:32

2 Answers 2


Copyright is handled on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis. There are various treaties that make the laws reasonably consistent from place to place, but the treaties aren't laws themselves.

If a piece of literature is in the public domain in one jurisdiction, that means you can freely copy, modify, or otherwise work with that piece of literature within that jurisdiction (subject to any moral rights that survive the expiration of copyright). It doesn't mean anything about what you can do with that piece of literature in other jurisdictions.

For example, George Orwell died in 1950. If you're in Australia or some other country with a "life+50" copyright term, you can freely sell copies of 1984 to anyone in one of those "life+50" countries, but you can't sell it in the United States or another country with a "life+70" term.

As for your follow-on question, there's no global registry. There's not even any country-by-country registry. Copyright is granted automatically when a work is created, and it's the responsibility of anyone wanting to use the work to make sure any copyright issues have been resolved. As you might imagine, this creates quite a problem.

  • Australia has a life +70 rule (since 2005)
    – Dale M
    Sep 21, 2018 at 2:10
  • Also, if a work has entered the public domain in its place of first publication, it is in the public domain everywhere
    – Dale M
    Sep 21, 2018 at 2:11
  • 2
    @DaleM, it's only in the public domain in countries that have adopted the rule of the shorter term.
    – Mark
    Sep 21, 2018 at 2:15
  • @Mark: You state that a product cannot be sold in an area where it's Copyright is still active, despite being in the Public Domain elsewhere. What is defined by the 'purchasing location'? Let's assume a product is Copyrighted in the US but not in the UK. A US customer is in the UK but enters a US shipping address. If the website then shipped the product to the US, would the website be breaching the Copyright despite the action being performed outside the US? Similarly, what if the the customer made the purchase in the US but entered a UK address?
    – Craig
    Sep 24, 2018 at 1:56
  • @Dale M: When it comes to written literature, does this mean referring to the dates of publication within the first editions? Is this a jurisdiction rule which could vary by jurisdiction or a global rule?
    – Craig
    Sep 24, 2018 at 1:58

The statement that "if a work has entered the public domain in its place of first publication, it is in the public domain everywhere." is simply incorrect. There are, for example, cases where a work is under copyright in the US, even though it fell into the public domain in the country where it was first published.

If a work first published outside the before 1964 US entered the public domain in the US because the US copyright was not properly renewed, but the copyright was restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, the restored US copyright has the full length of the US copyright term (95 years from first publication for works published prior to 1978), even if the 'home' country grants a shorter term of protection.

In general, the US does not follow the "rule of the shorter term" and US copyright terms depend on US law, no matter if the home country grants copyright for a shorter period.

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