We have covered the general facts about the U.S. copyright law in another article. In this article we’ll look at different types of copyright that exist.
Public Domain means you can use the text or the image in question freely, in any shape you want and for any purpose you want. It usually means the work was either generated by the government or was created before 1923 (as of 2008).
There are also works for which there never was any copyright registration. For example, a number of screen shots from old movies used in (what was once upon a time called) “Lobby Cards” fell into public domain because they were published in the United States between 1923 and 1977, without a copyright notice.
Sometimes a rightful owner can also knowingly release a work into public domain, just to be in public service.
Traditional Copyright is expressed either with the word “Copyright” or the universal copyright symbol “©” (letter “c” inside a circle). It is created the minute you actually write your technical documentation. All works created after January 1, 1978 and registered with the U.S. Copyright Office are copyrighted for the lifetime of their authors, plus another 70 years following the author’s death. Best information available on U.S. copyrights is available at U.S. Copyright Office (at www-dot-copyright-dot-gov).
GNU Free Documentation License (GNU FDL or just GFDL) allows you to copy, modify, and redistribute a text, picture, or technical writing provided that you also grant the same right to all others who’d be using it. For example, if you have used a technical diagram under the GNU license, then someone else may also take the same diagram and use it in his or her document. For example, all text used in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia come with GNU license.
Creative Commons (CC) gives you the right to use and distribute a work but only if you provide full attribution to he original owner. There are 6 different CC licenses, some not allowing any commercial uses. You can check them out at the creativecommons-dot-org web site.
NOTE 1: If you’re a technical writer working for a company, the copyright of the work you are creating almost always belongs to the company and not to you as an individual writer.
NOTE 2: All the information quoted in this article was correct when the article was written in December 2008 but it may have changed by the time you’re reading this. Please consult www-dot-copyright-dot-gov and your attorney before making a decision on all copyright matters.