Intellectual property is the area of the law that addresses and protects creative works such as paintings, books, inventions, and images. Graphics created by an individual may also be protected by intellectual copyright or trademark laws. Copyrighted or trademarked graphics may not be legally copied or used in any way without the permission of the copyright or trademark owner. Public domain graphics, however, are graphics that are not legally protected by any intellectual property laws and, therefore, may be copied or used without permission.
Intellectual property laws have been in existence since the 1700s. Just as the owner of real property, or personal property, has a right to the use and benefit of the property, so does the owner of intellectual property. When a book is copyrighted, or a design trademarked, no one may use or copy the property without prior permission of the owner.
With the advent of the digital age, a new form of intellectual property came about — graphics. Although graphics have technically been around for centuries, computers made the creation of graphics much more commonplace, which, in turn, called for many graphic artists to seek intellectual property protection for their work. As a result, unless a graphic is considered to be within the public domain graphics, it cannot legally be copied or used without prior permission of the owner.
Public domain is a term that is used to refer to anything that is available for use by the public, or that is not privately owned. When used in conjunction with intellectual property, such as "public domain graphics," it signifies that the work, idea, invention, or design may be freely used or copied by the public. Sometimes, public domain graphics were created to be used by the public, meaning they were never protected by intellectual property laws. In other cases, public domain graphics may have been protected by intellectual property laws at one time, but the copyright or trademark is no longer active.
The significance of a graphic being considered public domain for the average consumer is that he or she is free to copy and use the graphic for any reason. Although many people copy and use graphics without first determining whether or not it is considered public domain, they are actually violating an intellectual property law. If the owner of the graphic chooses to pursue litigation for a violation of the copyright or trademark infringement, the individual can face serious legal and financial consequences.