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Public Domain: Introduction

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.

Public Domain: Potential Problems

Frequently Ask Questions About the Public Domain
 

Q: I found this (image, song, text) I’d like to use on the Internet. It’s freely available there, does it mean it’s in the public domain?

A: No.

Just because a work is freely available to view, read, or listen to on the web does NOT mean it is in the public domain. You need to verify the copyright status of the work on the Internet. If it is under copyright, consider whether or not your use would be a fair use or covered by Section 110 (1) or the TEACH act; if you cannot claim those exceptions, you will need to seek permission of the copyright owner.


Q: What other kinds of laws or restrictions might there be on my use of a public domain work?

A: Good question! Yes, there are other laws or restrictions that you need to keep in mind before using a public domain work.

  • Right of publicity and privacy: See a definition of Right of publicity laws from Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute. If you plan on using a public domain photo or portrait of someone to sell a product, you will need to make sure that you are not violating that person’s publicity rights. For further information, you can also consult the Public Domain Sherpa’s page on this topic as well as Chapter 20 of Stephen Fishman’s 2010 publication, The Public Domain: How to Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music Art and More (Berkeley, CA: Nolo [call number 346.730482 F5378p 2010]).
  • Trademark law: If you plan on using a public domain work to sell something, you may want to double-check to see if the work is covered by trademark law. Public Domain Sherpa and Stanford University’s page on Public Domain Trouble Spots both have good descriptions on how trademark law can affect your potential uses as well as Chapter 20 in Fishman. Find out the basics of trademark law from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
  • Patent law: Although it is a rare occurrence to have a public domain item covered by a patent, Fishman describes how a design patent could cover a design on a manufactured public domain object on pages 145-146 in chapter five of his book, The Public Domain.
  • Licensed works: You may have heard of things like "click-wrap" or "shrink-wrap" licenses or you may have needed to sign a license in order to access certain kinds of information. If you’ve encountered such things when using public domain content then your use may be restricted by the terms of a license rather than by copyright law. One related pitfall you might encounter are so-called "copyright-free" or "royalty-free" collections of clip art, sound files, stock footage, etc. These collections could be covered by a license agreement and you should verify what uses are allowed in the agreement. For more information consult pages 27-29, chapter 2, in Fishman; Public Domain Sherpa or Stanford University’s Welcome to The Public Domain page under the paragraph "Clip Art Compilations".

Q: Why might I need to pay in order to access certain public domain materials?

A: Although the content of a public domain work may be free to reproduce, distribute, display, or perform, the physical material is still owned by someone (art museums, individual collectors, libraries, private institutions or individuals).


Q: Are works created in foreign countries subject to the same copyright durations as those in the U.S.? What works created outside of the U.S. are in the public domain?

A: Great question! This library guide mainly focuses on materials created within the United States.

Peter Hirtle’s Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States also addresses the basics of copyright durations of foreign works. Be sure to look under the heading, "Works First Published Outside the U.S. by Foreign Nationals or U.S. Citizens Living Abroad." International treaties that the U.S. has signed with other countries can also have a bearing on copyright durations. For further information on international copyright issues, please see the U.S. Copyright Office’s International Copyright Relations of the United States, Circular 38.


Q: Are there any sound recordings in the public domain?

A: Yes.

While the earliest year that sound recordings will enter the public domain will be in 2067, there are many pieces of music that are produced for the public domain and are free to use. Please see the tab, "Is it a Public Domain Work?" and "Resources for Public Domain Materials" for more information.


Q: Are state government documents in the public domain?

A: It depends.

You should double check the laws in that particular state to be sure.