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Public Domain

Introduction

Works in the public domain are works that are not protected by copyright law. This means that the work may be freely used and adapted by others without a license fee or permission from the creator of the work. If a work is in the public domain, anyone may reproduce and distribute the work, create derivative works, and display or perform the work publicly.

It is important to note that while public domain works are free of copyright restrictions, you must provide appropriate citations to your sources for academic integrity.

How Works Enter the Public Domain

Works can enter the public domain in several different ways:

1. Copyright Protection Expired - Copyright protection expires after a certain period of time, as set by federal copyright law. Determining what works have expired copyrights, and therefore are in the public domain, can be a complicated process due to changes in the copyright laws over the years. The length of copyright protection period depends on several factors, including when the work was created, whether it has been published, and if so, how and where it was published. Two general rules with respect to copyright expiration are:

    • Works published before 1923 are in the public domain
    • Works created today will be protected for the life of the author + 70 years

To determine the copyright/public domain status of other works, consult Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, a detailed chart by Peter Hirtle at Cornell University.

2. Copyright Formalities Not Met – Prior to the current U.S. copyright law, in order for a work to be protected, a notice of copyright and registration with the United States Copyright Office were required. In addition, to keep the copyright active, a renewal had to be filed with the Copyright Office after 28 years. Works that did not meet all of those formalities either were never protected or lost their protection and entered the public domain. The Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States chart sets out the requirements for different types of materials to help determine which have entered the public domain.

3. Works of the United States Government –Works prepared by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of his or her official duties are not protected by copyright law. Read USA.gov’s Copyright and Other Rights Pertaining to U.S. Government Works for details and exceptions. Note in particular that works of state and local governments are not subject this status and may be protected by copyright.

4. Works Dedicated to the Public Domain – Creators of works sometimes choose to dedicate their works to the public domain, so that they may be freely used by anyone even during the period of copyright protection. Works falling into this category should be clearly marked with a public domain notice so that the dedication is clear. Such markings include:

    • a note indicating that this work has been dedicated to the public domain or is in the public domain
    • a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal license (Public Domain Dedication)
    •  

5. Works Outside the Scope of Copyright Protection

    • The Copyright Act of 1976 sets out requirements that must be met in order for a work to be copyrightable. The following categories of materials are generally not eligible for copyright protection. Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (e.g., choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded and improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded). 17 U.S. Code § 102(a).
    • Ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration. 17 U.S. Code § 102(b). Words and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring; mere listing of ingredients or contents. 37 C.F.R. § 202.1(a).
    • Blank forms, such as time cards, graph paper, account books, diaries, bank checks, scorecards, address books, report forms, order forms and the like, which are designed for recording information and do not in themselves convey information. 37 C.F.R. § 202.1(b).
    • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (e.g., standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources. 37 C.F.R. § 202.1(d)

Further Reading

Welcome to the Public Domain (Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Center)
Public Domain Sherpa
Fishman, Stephen. The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-free Writings, Music, Art & More. 7th ed. Berkeley: NOLO, 2014.

Finding Public Domain Materials

Books & Reports
Project Gutenberg - offers over 45,000 free ebooks: choose epub or kindle books; download them or read them online
Federal Digital System – provides free online access to official publications from all three branches of the Federal Government

Images, Sound & Video
Internet Archive – provides access to public domain and open access texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived web pages
Library of Congress Digital Collections & Services – provides access to print, pictorial and audio-visual collections. (copyright restrictions are noted for works not in the public domain)
Wikimedia Commons – a media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content (images, sound and video clips)
Europeana – provides access to millions of digitized items from European museums, libraries, and archives. Searches can be limited to public domain and/or open access works
The Public Domain Review - images, books, audio and film from a wide range of online archives from the United States and Europe