The public domain is the collection of all expressive works for which no one owns the copyright—or to look at it another way, the collection of works which everyone owns. Works within the public domain may be used freely by anyone, for any purpose, without copyright permission from anyone because no one owns the exclusive rights to these works.
A work is in the public domain if its term of copyright protection is over, or if it never met the requirements for copyright protection in the first place. Here are some general guidelines to determine if a work is in the public domain:
It is no longer under copyright (e.g., the term has expired, it has not been properly renewed)
- Items published in the United States prior to 1923 are in the public domain.
- For an item published in the United States after 1923, it is much more complicated to determine copyright status. See the Public Domain Information Resources below for additional information and tools for determining copyright status.
- It does not meet the requirements for copyright protection (ideas, procedures, methods, etc.)
- The author elected to put the work into the public domain
- It is a work of the United States government (which may exclude the work of independent contractors)
Public Domain Information Resources:
- How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work PDF: United States Copyright Office
The Copyright Slider: Michael Brewer and ALA Office for Information Technology Policy
- A very useful tool for looking up copyright term and public domain possibilities via date and various conditions of publication.
Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States: Peter Hirtle, Cornell Copyright Information Center.
- Detailed chart of copyright term and public domain considerations and dates.
- Search Copyright Records at the U.S. Copyright Office
- Stanford University’s Copyright Renewal Database
Public Domain Resource Lists:
- The Government Printing Office: U.S. Federal Government publications.
- The Commons on Flickr: images from museums and cultural heritage institutions.
- The Prelinger Archive of public domain films.
- Public domain books from Project Gutenberg.
- A list of public domain resources compiled by Wikipedia.
- Public domain and open-licensed resource list, from the Ohio State University.
Adapted and used under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license from the University of Minnesota University Libraries
This web site presents information about copyright law. The University Libraries make every effort to assure the accuracy of this information but do not offer it as counsel or legal advice. Consult an attorney for advice concerning your specific situation.
Most Recent Revision: July 10, 2015
Page last modified July 23, 2015