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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:

  • Facts and titles
  • Works by the federal government
  • Works that were never covered by any intellectual property laws (e.g. facts)

Currently, copyright law protects a work 70 years beyond the creator’s death and corporate works are protected even longer – as much as 95 or 120 years.  However, copyright has not always worked this way. Books and other materials published before 1923 belong to the public domain.

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.

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.