Works do not remain under the protection of copyright forever. Additionally, some works are not eligible for copyright in the first place. The “public domain” refers to creative works that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it or assert exclusive rights over it.

There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
  • copyright law does not protect this type of work. For example, all government works flow automatically into the public domain.

Note on Collections: While individual works in the public domain cannot be copyrighted, collections of works - such as text or images - in the public domain may be under copyright; for example, an anthology of old stories.

Duration of Copyright

Laws governing the duration of copyright law have changed significantly over the past century. However, there are a few general rules of thumb:

  1. Published after 1977 - copyright lasts the life of the author + 70 years
  2. Published between 1924-1977 - it depends whether the copyright was renewed or not
  3. Published before 1925 - no copyright; all of these works are in the public domain

Public Domain Resources

Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States - Detailed guide for determining if works are free to use in the public domain or still under copyright provision.