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Little-Known Public Domain Secrets

It’s no surprise that there are a number of marketing folks who talk about Public Domain content. I don’t have the exclusive on the topic…expert or not. Of course, most give their primary focus to books…and rightly so…but books are just one branch in a massive tree of content possibilities. Other “branches” include images, magazines, patents, movies, audios…the list goes on and on. But in today’s post, I’m going to lead you to another branch that very few marketers, if any, are talking about with regard to the Public Domain. I’ve hinted at a few of the “leaves” of this branch in the past…today I’m going to focus your attention on a few more.

Our discussion for this post and posts to come draws from a curious paragraph found in Copyright Circular 40 on Works of the Visual Arts. It’s no secret that I LOVE the visual arts in all its forms, but today we’ll look at them with a spin…NOT considering content that was once copyrighted but is now in the Public Domain, but rather, content that was NEVER copyrighted (and never will be). It’s content you use everyday and likely never considered it for product creation. And that’s the exact reason why I’m mentioning it now.

The paragraph I referenced earlier from Circular 40 reads as follows:

Copyright protection for an original work of authorship does not extend to the following:

  • Ideas, concepts, discoveries, principles
  • Formulas, processes, systems, methods, procedures
  • Words or short phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring

Now I am not planning to focus on all these “non-copyrightable” options in this post…I just want to spurn you to think about just ONE bit of content differently today. We’ll get to others in future posts. As a matter of fact, I’ve already written a post previously about IDEAS which you really should read HERE.Today, however, I want to take a look at the last option: Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring.

One of the reasons I wanted to look at this type of Public Domain content is because it’s the exact type of content that I discussed briefly in my previous article on Aeropostale. Defining this content is rather easy because you are “using” it right now…letters, numbers, ornaments and colors! Now, about now, you might be thinking, “Okay Tony…book content I can see for products, even images and magazines…but letters? Like A or T or Z?

Yeah! Letters! Letters and symbols are the basis for all our written (and in some cases visual) communication. They represent specific concepts to us regardless of our language or worldview. And so, while the letters, “Z”, “P”, “A” and “I” may seem to offer no possible relevance to us for product creation, the word, “PIZZA” instantly conjures memories of images, tastes, smells and experiences…at least it does for me. More than that though, you and I have the legal right to use that word, pizza, or the letters that make it up, to create ANY type of product we choose…as evidenced by the yellow-stripped shirt I’m wearing right now with “A87″ embroidered on the pocket (yes, I bought it at Aeropostale)! To you and me, “A87″ means very little if anything, but to Aeropostale, it means a multi-million dollar business and brand!

Here is another question to consider…what does “STOP” mean to you? And in how many ways have you seen those letters in that configuration used in products of all types? What about the color “red” as it’s used with a stop sign? The color “red” carries meaning to it…think about it…you don’t see “green” stop signs! Why? It sends the wrong message…and that message is conveyed with a color and four letters.

Let me offer one more example (I could provide thousands) in the form of another question…when you see the numbers 0, 1 and 9, they don’t mean too much right? But what about 9/11/01? Every American knows what THAT number combination stands for…and those numbers in that combination has generated tens of millions of dollars! How about this set of numbers: 12-25? Merry Christmas! I hope you are beginning to get my drift.

You know what this means, right? :-) A very common symbol online…a smiley face…that has been worth millions in one form or another!

It’s likely that you have not consciously considered what possible products could be created with the combination of letters, numbers, symbols and colors. My hope is that this post will challenge you to consider new possibilities in your quest for best-selling products. Think outside the box and brainstorm how a letter or two might be able to transform your business!

6 Responses to “Little-Known Public Domain Secrets”

  • I know that a lot of the art at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is simply words on a canvas or other surface – sometimes scrawled, sometimes represented with “typographical” letters. Some of the I like, some I don’t, but the thing I’ve always thought was (first) I can do that and (second) yes, but could I sell it.

    The other side of this, though, is – aren’t some configurations of letters and symbols protected by trademark rather than copyright? Or is that not what you are suggesting?

    I will now now go contemplate the possibilities of using letters, numbers, symbols and colors to create products. The first thing I come up with is fabrics, which leads me to tee shirts. I’m sure, though, that I could be much more creative than that.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tony Laidig, James Cooke and Geoff Hoff, Suzanne DeCree. Suzanne DeCree said: RT @tonylaidig: One of my most thought-provoking posts on the Public Domain yet: Please RT and Bookmark. Thanks! […]

  • This is a very educative article.Honestly,l’ve never for once thought about symbols,letters and numbers the very way you’ve just described them here .I should now begin to focus on them in a more creative way,just as you’ve mentioned in the article henceforth.

    Thanks so much Tony.

  • An interesting topic. You got me thinkin’. No ideas yet,though.

  • Hi Tony,
    Great post, really got me thinking.

    I’ve made use of pages from several old illustrated children’s readers. You know, the ones with a single word accompanying a woodcut or engraving of the subject matter.

    Never thought about using just the word by itself.

    On a related note…

    The Museum of Modern Art in New York just “acquired” the @ symbol for their collection. They don’t claim exclusive rights or anything, just wanted to add it to their collection because it’s such a brilliant design!

    Keep those Public Domain ideas coming!

    John R. Cumbow

    Out-of-print and hard-to-find books and
    information for glass artists and collectors

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