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DCC Copyright: Public Domain

What is the public domain?

Public domain works are not protected by copyright law and are freely available for everyone to use.

Public Domain Tools

Creative Commons, discussed elsewhere in this guide, has created tools to make it easier to produce works for the public domain or identify when you use a work that is already in the public domain.

CC0 CC0 Public Domain icon

  • Use this universal tool if you are a holder of copyright or database rights, and you wish to waive all your interests that may exist in your work worldwide.

Public Domain Mark Public Domain Mark icon

  • Use this tool if you have identified a work that is free of known copyright restrictions.

 

This section was created using information from Creative Commons Public Domain at https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/public-domain/


Works may be in the public domain for a number of reasons:

  • The work does not qualify for copyright protection.

    • A work must be original, be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression," and have some degree of creativity in order for it to be protected by copyright.
    • Categories of material that are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection include: 
      • Ideas and facts

      • Works with expired copyrights

      • Works governed by early copyright statutes that failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection, i.e., notice, registration, and renewal requirements

      • U.S. government works (projects written by non-government authors with federal funding may be copyright protected)

      • Scientific principles, theorems, mathematical formulae, laws of nature

      • Scientific and other research methodologies, statistical techniques and educational processes

      • Laws, regulations, judicial opinions, government documents and legislative reports

      • Words, names, numbers, symbols, signs, rules of grammar and diction, and punctuation

    • Caveat lector: although ideas, facts, discoveries, hypotheses, theories, processes and systems may not be protected by copyright law, any expression of them could be protected. For instance, the prose describing a scientific hypothesis in a journal article would be protected by copyright law, but the facts and data surrounding the hypothesis would be in the public domain. For more information, see Duke University Law School's "What does copyright not cover?" from its site, Public Domain Day Frequently Asked Questions.
       
  • The work's duration of copyright expired or was not renewed.

    • Due to changes in copyright law and treaties, determining the duration of copyright on a work can be very tricky. In more complicated cases, it may be necessary to consult an attorney or copyright expert.
    • The tab, "Is it a Public Domain Work?" in this tutorial gives charts and links that could be of some assistance.
    • Generally, works published in the United States prior to January 1st, 1924 are in the public domain.
       
  • The creator or copyright owner dedicated the work to the public domain.

    • Yes, these creations do exist! Here's a recent example from an organization called Grassroots Mapping who is documenting the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in their photographs.
       
  • The work was created by the U.S. Government.

    • Title 17 of the U.S. Copyright Code does not allow for work created by the U.S. Government to be copyrighted.

What does this mean for my academic project?

What does this mean for my academic project?

You can use as much of the public domain work as you would like to support your instruction, research, publication, creative work, etc., without needing permission from the original copyright owner. Here are some examples of what you can do with public domain works:

  • You are an MFA candidate in Media Arts or Theatre and want to create your own adaptation, play script, or screenplay of Willa Cather's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, One of Ours, originally published in 1922.

  • You are an English Literature student analyzing some poems written by American poet, Elinor Wylie, from the collection of poetry, Nets to Catch the Wind, published in 1921 and need to reprint the poems in your project.

  • You are a Music student who would like to publicly perform Beethoven's Cello Sonatas in a recital.

  • You are a faculty member in Art publishing a book about World War II posters created by U.S. Government agencies and want to reprint them in your book. Here's an example provided by Northwestern University Libraries.

  • You are a PhD candidate in one of the sciences and would like to challenge a scientific hypothesis made by another scientist for part of your dissertation.

Helpful links