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Copyright and Fair Use Resources: Public Domain

Resources for copyright and fair use questions

Public Domain Basics

What is the Public Domain?

Works which are not protected by any intellectual property laws such as copyright are considered in the public domain. Usually works enter the public domain because:

  • the copyright has expired 
  • the copyright owner put the work in the public domain
  • the work does not qualify for copyright protection (e.g. US government works)
  • the original copyright holder did not follow appropriate copyright registration

These are free of any type of restrictions and can be reused in any form without permission. Although individual public domain works do not have any restrictions on use, collections of public domain works can. For example, if someone publishes a collection of essays which are all in the public domain the collection itself would have a copyright but each individual essay would still be in the public domain. 

What's in the Public Domain?

Generally each year on January 1st a new group of works have their copyright expire and enter the public domain. This day is know as Public Domain Day and the list of new works is released. There currently is not a complete list of public domain works online, but there are many resources available to find content. 

Public Domain Resources

These resources contain works which are believed to be in the public domain. It's important to review each source before use.

  •  Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature
    • The Baldwin Library is known for comparative editions of books, with special emphasis on Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s Fables, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Library also has the largest collection of Early American Juvenile Imprints of any academic institution in the United States.
  • DPLA Primary Source Sets
    • Collections of public domain primary source material on history from the Digital Public Library of America. Helpful article on locating public domain content.
  • Europeana
    • At Europeana we work with thousands of European archives, libraries and museums to share cultural heritage for enjoyment, education and research. Europeana provides access to millions of books, music, artworks and more – with sophisticated search and filter tools to help you find what you’re looking for.
  • Internet Archive
    • A digital library of internet websites and online content from many different websites. Most of the content is freely available and can be used per the specific license. 
  • Library of Congress
    • Digital collections from the LOC including photos, drawings, and sound recordings. 
  • The Public Domain : how to find & use copyright-free writings, music, art & more
    • The book also provides an overview of copyright law, how to determine a work's public domain status, foreign publications, the length of copyright protection, where and how notices appear, and legal problems.‚Äč

Determining What's in the Public Domain

How Do I Know if Something is in the Public Domain?

Not all works are clearly labeled as being in the public domain and sometimes it takes a little digging to make a determination. Check the graph below and the slider on the right for helpful dates. In most cases, worked published before 1924 are in the public domain but there are exceptions. When in doubt, it's best to consult the chart below to make an accurate determination. 

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States
Type of Work Copyright Term In the public domain in the U.S. as of 1 January 2019
Unpublished works Life of the author + 70 years Works from authors who died before 1949
Unpublished anonymous and pseudonymous works, and works made for hire (corporate authorship) 120 years from date of creation Works created before 1899
Unpublished works when the death date of the author is not known 120 years from date of creation Works created before 1899
Works Registered or First Published in the US
Publication Date Conditions Copyright Terms
Before 1928 None None. In public domain due to copyright expiration. 
1928 through 1977 Published without a copyright notice None. In the public domain due to failure to comply with required formalities
1978 to 1 March 1989 Published without notice, and without subsequent registration within 5 years None. In the public domain due to failure to comply with required formalities
1978 to 1 March 1989 Published without notice, but with subsequent registration within 5 years 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first
1924 through 1963 Published with notice but copyright was not renewed None. In the public domain due to copyright expiration
1924 through 1963 Published with notice and the copyright was renewed 95 years after publication date
1964 through 1977 Published with notice 95 years after publication date
1978 to 1 March 1989 Created after 1977 and published with notice 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first
1978 to 1 March 1989 Created before 1978 and first published with notice in the specified period The greater of the term specified in the previous entry or 31 December 2047
From 1 March 1989 through 2002 Created after 1977 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first
From 1 March 1989 through 2002 Created before 1978 and first published in this period The greater of the term specified in the previous entry or 31 December 2047
After 2002 None 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first
Anytime Works prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties. None. In the public domain in the United States (17 U.S.C. § 105)

Chart adapted from https://copyright.cornell.edu/publicdomain