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Public Domain

What is the Public Domain?

The public domain consists of materials that are no longer protected by copyright or that have been deemed not covered by copyright by law. Some other examples of items in the public domain include:

  • Titles and processes (these may be protected by trademarks or patents)
  • Works by the federal government
  • Works that were never covered by any intellectual property laws (e.g. facts)
  • Works which were protected by copyright but that protection has expired

It is important to note that just because a work is in the public domain does not necessarily mean it can be used without any legal concerns. For example, processes may be protected by patents and titles may be trademarked.

Under current US law, most works are protected for 70 years after the author dies. For works with more than one author, the term is 70 years after the death of the last living author. Corporate works and most pseudonymous works are protected for 95 years from publication 120 years from creation. However, copyright has not always worked this way. Books and other materials published before 1923 belong to the public domain. The current US copyright term laws are found in Chapter 3 of copyright law and the US Copyright Office has prepared a Circular containing information about copyright terms under current and previous copyright laws.

The status of most protected works is complicated – during the twentieth century, copyright law was amended several times and as such there are many different rules for different works.

The Cornell Copyright Information Center has created a very helpful chart that shows how long the copyright term is for many works. It takes into account whether or not a work was published, the date of publication, when a copyright was registered, if it was renewed, and more.

Our Toolkit also contains several online resources about copyright terms.

Using Public Domain Materials

Anyone can use works that have fallen into the public domain in the same ways that the original copyright holder could. You can publish, reproduce, sell, display, perform and prepare derivative works without permission.

Discovering Copyright Status

If you think a work may be in the public domain, you can check the U.S. Copyright Office. This website has copyright information for registered works. Unfortunately, for many works registered before 1978, the Copyright Office only has physical records and you may need to call if you want information on older material.

For more information, visit our getting permission page.

Finally, if you are looking at a digital resource, check the page carefully for a creative commons license. Some types of creative commons licenses put the work in the public domain. For more information, visit our Creative Commons page.