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Reference Guide: Public Domain

This guide serves as the home page for all things Reference at Lewis Library. Meet your reference librarians, learn about reference services available to you, and check out suggested resources and guides all from this page!

More About Public Domain

About Public Domain

What is the public domain?

The public domain is generally defined as consisting of works that are either ineligible for copyright protection or with expired copyrights. No permission whatsoever is needed to copy or use public domain works. Public domain works and information represent some of the most critical information that faculty members and students rely upon. Public domain works can serve as the foundation for new creative works and can be quoted extensively. They can also be copied and distributed to classes or digitized and placed on course Web pages without permission or paying royalties. 

What types of works make up the public domain?

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

Rules of thumb for public domain works

There is no easy method to determine whether a work is in the public domain because the laws are complex and have changed numerous times over the years. Here are some rules of thumb that will help you confirm the copyright status of a work: 

1.  If the work was published in the United States prior to 1923, it is in the public domain. 

2.  For works published between 1923 and March 1, 1989, it depends on whether the certain statutory formalities were observed, such as providing a notice of copyright on the work or renewing the copyright per statutory deadlines.  Examples:  a)If the work was published in the United States between 1923 and 1978 without a notice, it is in the public domain. (Note: If the work published during this period has a notice, it is protected for 95 years from the date of publication.)  b)  If the work was published in the United States between 1978 and March 1, 1989 without a notice and registration, it is in the public domain. (Note: If the work published during this period has a notice, but not a registration, it is protected for 70 years from the death of the author.) c)  If the work was published in the United States between 1923 and 1963 with a notice, but copyright was not renewed, it is in the public domain.  

3.  After March 1, 1989, all works (published and unpublished) are protected for 70 years from the date the author dies. For works of corporate authorship (works made for hire), the copyright term is the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.

How can I put a work in the public domain?

Since the 1976 Copyright Act provides that copyright attaches automatically upon the creation of an original work that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, copyright protection has been automatic. Consequently, if you want others to have free use of your work, you can either make it clear, preferably in the work itself, that you do not assert any copyright ownership and waive any copyright interest, or you can retain copyright ownership but grant a non-exclusive, royalty-free, fully-paid up license to another person to use, reproduce, modify, and prepare derivative works based upon the original work. The Creative Commons provides further explanation and examples of different types of licenses. For computer software, the Open Source Initiative has posted sample "open source" software license agreements.

How can I tell if copyright has been renewed?

Copyright renewals only concern those works that were first published in the U.S. during the years 1923-1963. Works published during this period had to get their copyrights renewed at the U.S. Copyright Office in their 28th year in order to stay copyrighted. There is no need to research renewals prior to 1923 as these are in the public domain, or after 1963 as these received automatic renewal for a 95-year copyright term. To find out whether a particular work was renewed usually requires a search of records in the U.S.Copyright Office. For more information on this process, see U.S. Copyright Office:  Circular 15: Renewal of Copyright. For works registered or renewed since 1978, search the U.S.Copyright Office online search site. Alternatively, a researcher can arrange for the U.S. Copyright Office to conduct a search of the copyright records for $75.00 per hour by submitting a Search Request Form.  For more information about the U.S. Copyright Office search service, see U.S. Copyright Office: Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work.  Additional options include writing a letter directly to the author or publisher verifying that there was no renewal, or purchasing search services from a commercial agency.  

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