What is the “Public Domain?” 

Works in the Public Domain can be used by anyone for any legal purpose, without permission from the author. Public Domain works include: 

  • Works for which the copyright has expired
  • Works for which the copyright owner has placed the work in the public domain
  • Works where copyright never existed

It Can be Hard to Tell What is in the “Public Domain”

Works where copyright never existed under federal law:

  • For a work to have copyright, it must be about appropriate subject matter, fixed, have at least minimal originality, and include creative expression.
    • Facts & data are not covered by copyright
  • NOTE: State common law may give additional copyright protections, so you must also check state law
  • Works of the federal government are not covered by copyright according to 17 U.S.C. 105
    • A work is a work prepared by an officer or employee as part of their official duties 
    • State government works are generally protected by copyright (check your state’s laws)
      • This does not include laws, regulations or court decisions
      • For more information on state governments and copyright visit Harvard’s State Copyright Resource Center
        • The Harvard page on New York and copyright is here.

Works where copyright has expired:

  • For works created during or after 1978:
    • Copyright is the life of the author, plus 70 years
    • For “works for hire” the copyright is 95 years from publication
  • For works published before 1978
    • Generally a maximum of 95 years 
    • May be shorter if the work was not registered or copyright was not renewed 
  • Works created before 1978 but not published
    • Copyright is life of the author plus 70 years 
    • See Cornell’s Copyright Term chart for more information

So How Do I Tell if it is in the “Public Domain?”

  • Was it published? 
    • Published generally means copies of a work distributed to the public by sale or transfer of ownership
    • Published can also include a limited or select group distribution for limited purposes with restrictions on reproducing, distributing or selling
  • When was it published?
    • Check the list above 
  • Was it renewed? 
  • Is there anything in it that might have its own copyright held by someone else, such as a photo or chart? 
  • Make sure you know all the facts!
    • Was it published?
    • When was it published?
    • What is the nationality of the author? 
      • Works that are in the public domain in the US might still be protected abroad 
      • Works written by foreign authors may be protected in the US 
        • Failure to renew a US edition may not matter if it was also published abroad 
  • When in doubt, consult your lawyer!