How do I know if it's in the public domain?

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What is the "public domain"?

Copyright doesn't last forever. A work usually falls into the public domain because its copyright has expired. The duration of copyright has changed several times. Currently it is:

  • the author's date of death plus 70 years ("life plus 70"), or 
  • the creation/publication date plus 120 years (for anonymous works and works with corporate authors).

Some works are never copyrighted, such as works created on the job by employees of the U.S. federal government and some state governments.

What is allowed for works in the public domain?

When a work is in the public domain, you can do all of the following, without asking the copyright owner's permission or paying royalties:

  • make copies in any medium
  • share, distribute or sell those copies
  • perform or display it
  • make derivative works (adaptations, translations, new editions, spinoffs, sequels, supplementary materials, etc.)
  • share, distribute, sell, perform or display those derivative works
  • own the copyright of the derivative works you create, insofar as they contain your own "original authorship."

Public Domain Misconceptions

  • Material available free on the Web is not necessarily in the public domain, even if it says "copyright free," which probably means "royalty free," which is different.    
  • Unpublished work is not necessarily in the public domain.
  • Material without a copyright notice or © symbol is not necessarily in the public domain (although it may be, if published between 1923 and 1989).
  • Material that is out of print is not necessarily in the public domain.
  • Material bearing a copyright notice or © symbol may nevertheless have an expired copyright. 
  • A copyright notice or © symbol may appear on reprints of the classics; unless it's a new translation, revision or adaptation, the only material in the book that is copyrighted is any introductory, supplemental or explanatory content. 

Public Domain and Multimedia

Public domain is more complicated for music, plays, etc. because the copyright of the work and the copyright of its performance are separate. For example, Shakespeare's "Hamlet" was published centuries ago and is in the public domain, but Kenneth Brannagh used that script for his movie "Hamlet," which is copyrighted. 

If you want to embed the score of one of Beethoven's symphonies in your course, that is fine because it's in the public domain. But if you want to embed an MP3 of the music, you will probably need permission (or find a way to use it under the doctrine of fair use), because most recordings of Beethoven's symphonic performances are too recent to be in the public domain. (There are exceptions, so Ask a Librarian.)

United States/International Public Domain

The rules for public domain are different (and generally more lenient) in the United States than in other countries. Works that are published only in the U.S. follow the U.S. rules, and so do works that are published in the U.S. and another country simultaneously. Works that are published only in another country, or that are published in another country before they are published in the U.S., follow the international rules.

Public Domain Sherpa provides some resources to help determine whether a work is in the public domain:

Use the following tools to look up information such as:

Public Domain Helper

The Public Domain Helper is an interactive tool that will help you find out whether a particular work is in the public domain.

If you have questions about whether a work is in the public domain, Ask a Librarian

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