Ownership Rights vs. Public Domain and User Rights

This article is intended to be a brief outline of aspects of Canadian law relating to intellectual property and the public domain.  When intellectual-property ownership rights exist in a product, a purchaser of the product will generally only obtain limited “user rights”.  In contrast, when something is in the “public domain” there are no ownership rights and it is available for any member of the public to use without permission and without limitation.  As an intellectual-property lawyer, a general failure by members of the public to understand this distinction and how ownership rights are created or lost, keeps me busy.
When an inventor creates a patentable invention, the invention enters the public domain 12 months after public disclosure, unless an application is filed with the Patent Office within that period.  A patent gives the inventor ownership rights, subject to payment of an annual fee, for a period of 20 years from the filing date of the application; after which the invention will enter the “public domain”.   For example, Alexander Graham Bell’s patents relating to the telephone are all public domain.
When a person creates an attractive design for a functional object, such as a chair; the design enters the public domain 12 months after public disclosure unless an application is filed with the Industrial Design Office within that period.  An industrial design registration gives the designer ownership rights in the design, subject to a 5 year renewal fee, for a period of 10 years; after which the design will enter the “public domain”.   For example, when one sees the same chair made by numerous companies, it is a strong indication that the design is in the public domain.
When a user purchases an article that is protected by a patent or industrial design registration, the user acquires a “user right” to use that article without paying further payments to the inventor.  The user also acquires a “user right” to conduct normal maintenance to keep the article in good condition.  However, the “user right” does not include the right to reconstruct major components of the article.
Regrettably, inventors and designers attending our office to seek protection are often shocked to discover that they have missed their time period and that their creations are now public domain.
Another form of intellectual property, copyright, relates to written works, recordings, software, music etc. Unlike patents and industrial designs, copyright arises automatically upon the  creation of a suitable work; registration is merely an optional public notification that need not take place within a specified time period.  The usual term of copyright is the life of the author plus 50 years; once copyright in a work has expired, the work enters the public domain.  For example, the works of  Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are all in the public domain.  The rules concerning photographs are slightly different; the photographer acquires rights for a period of 50 years from the date the photograph was taken.  “User rights” in the copyright area are primarily limited to personal use, the user may not distribute or make a commercial use of the literary work, although the law has carved out special exceptions, such as: news reporting, persons with disabilities (e.g., audio books for the blind), libraries, and education.  The most common legal issues in this area relate to users using text or photographs for commercial purposes, such as on a commercial website.
In your personal and business dealings you will encounter some items or materials that are clearly public domain, some that clearly have limited user rights and some that you are uncertain into which category they fall.  If in doubt, I urge you to seek legal advice and avoid potential legal problems.