Can you copyright a work after the original copyright expires?
No, once a work enters the public domain, an individual cannot copyright that work. Even though this rule is simple, a bit of clarifying is in order.
For example, imagine you write a play based on Romeo and Juliet (a play which is in the public domain), but your play contains two new characters who interact with Romeo and Juliet and change the plot in significant ways. The play that you write will have copyright protection of its own, but only the changes you made that meet copyright’s originality requirements
will be protected. The rest of the play—all of the words, plot, and the protectable aspects of characters—will still be public domain
. What you have done by writing your play is known copyright law as “creating a derivative work.”
As long the changed you made to the play are distinguishable variations from the original play that are not “merely trivial,” your changes will be protected as a derivative work. [ For more information about the derivative works test: Kate Aspen, Inc. v. Fashioncraft-Excello, Inc., 370 F. Supp. 2d 1333, 1337 n.3 (N.D. Ga. 2005) ]
However, Congress does have a limited power to take works in the public domain and re-establish their copyright under certain circumstances.
Finally, one thing to be aware of is that trademarks, which share some similarities to copyrights, can be renewed indefinitely. So something like a logo image, which may be sufficiently original and creative
to have temporary protection by copyright, could also be protected indefinitely under trademark.
If you have questions about using public domain materials or making derivative works
like songs and movies based on public domain materials, feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here.