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Should you hire a lawyer to certify a Public Domain Work?

Whenever you want to use a public domain work in your business, you should consider getting the work certified by the copyright office. The next question, then, is whether you should hire a lawyer to do so. There is a lot of ‘research’ work and copyright checks that you can carry out yourself (or pay someone to carry them out for you) without having to go through legal hassles. In the end, you will only need a lawyer if you violate the copyright law. Even then, there are certain grey areas where the law is not so clear, and your own interpretation might be at odds with the court’s interpretation, thus putting you in hot water.

So take the situation case by case. If you are sued, you will definitely need a lawyer. Apart from that, the best bet is to stick to guaranteed public domain works. If you can verify with certainty that a work’s copyright has not been renewed (provided the work was published before 1964), then you can safely consider it public domain. Similarly, if something was published without a copyright notice before 1978, it is in the public domain as well.

The only glitch comes when you launch your own derivative work of another copyrighted work or a work whose status you cannot determine through research. There is also a problem if you work with unpublished works. In these situations, it is best to hold a counseling session with an intellectual property lawyer before taking any definitive business steps. Many people get discouraged by high attorney costs. On the other hand, you have to weigh all your costs (research, copyright checks, attorney fees, production, marketing, etc) against your expected profits and then decide whether it is worth the investment or not. If you find a killer niche which can easily bring you a high monthly income, maybe spending a few hundred dollars to protect yourself from litigation isn’t that bad after all. Copyright issues only arise for works that are unpublished and works published after 1922. I’d suggest that you start off with pre-1923 published works even if they bring in smaller profits (the idea is to build multiple income streams). Then, once you have a constant stream of income, you can make bigger investments and move into the unpublished and post 1922 works. And of course, avoid copying trademarks for commercial purposes.

Even if you significantly change it, chances are that you will be slapped with a lawsuit faster than you can say: “Do I need a lawyer?” .


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