The public domain refers to works that do not have any sort of intellectual property protections, such as copyright, trademark, and patents (Stim, "Welcome to the Public Domain"). This maybe because they are no longer covered by copyright protection or because they never qualified for them in the first place (U.S. Copyright Office).
Works enter the public domain primarily in four ways:
Works in the pubic domain are considered to be effectively owned by the general public. Therefore, what would otherwise be considered exclusive rights, such as copying and performance, can be done by anyone (Legal Information Institute).
With how copyright terms have changed over time, as well as changes in requirements for registering copyright, identifying whether a work in the public domain can be complicated. This section will help sort out some of these issues.
The public domain slider from the American Library Association has you select date ranges a work was published in, as well as information on registration and renewal when that applies, and it will tell you whether you would need permission to use it and its copyright term or if public domain status. The slider only overs works published in the United States.
The slider can be used by following the link above or using the embedded slider below. To use the embedded slider,
Public Domain Slider by Michael Brewer and the American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy was used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
This chart lists dates of publication for works registered or published first in the United States and whether they are in the public domain, depending on specific conditions. It covers a few more situations then the Public Domain Slider.
For a complete chart covering a more comprehensive list of instances with extensive footnotes, see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States from Cornell University Library.
|Date of Publication||Conditions||Copyright Term|
|Before 1928||None||None. In the public domain due to copyright expiration|
|1928 through 1977||Published without a copyright notice||None. In the public domain due to failure to comply with required formalities|
|1928 through 1963||Published with notice but copyright was not renewed||None. In the public domain due to copyright expiration|
|1928 through 1963||Published with notice and the copyright was renewed||95 years after publication date|
|1964 through 1977||Published with notice||95 years after publication date|
|1978 to 1 March 1989||Created after 1977 and published with notice||70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first|
|From 1 March 1989 through 2002||Created after 1977||70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first|
|After 2002||None||70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first|
|Anytime||Works prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties.||None. In the public domain in the United States, unless the employee was a civilian member of the faculty of one of 15 service academies and the work in question is a literary work intended for scholarly publication. (17 U.S.C. § 105)|
This chart, "Copyright Terms for Works Registered or First Published in the United States," is a derivative of "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States" by Peter B. Hirtle, used under a CC BY 3.0 license.
There are also cases where aspects of a work are public domain, meaning you can use them without permission, and other parts would require permission to use or for a limitation of copyright to apply.
As mentioned above, one way a work can enter the public domain is when copyright owners choose to dedicate the work into it. However, in many places there is no easy or straightforward process for doing that ("CC0"). Creative Commons created a tool for getting around that issue: the CC0 public domain declaration.
CC0 consists of two mechanisms.
Creators can apply the CC0 dedication to works they own and wish to make freely available in the public domain. It is not for identifying materials that are already in the public domain. Creative Commons does have an icon for identifying works already in the public domain.
"CC0." Creative Commons, creativecommons.org/share-your-work/public-domain/cc0.
“CC0 FAQ .” Creative Commons Wiki, wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/CC0_FAQ.
Hirtle, Peter B. "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States." Copyright Information Center, Cornell University Library, copyright.cornell.edu/publicdomain.
Legal Information Institute. "Public Domain" Wex, Cornell Law School, www.law.cornell.edu/wex/public_domain.
Perrotti, Nicholas. "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Copyrightable Character." Journal of Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law Blog, New York University School of Law, 3 Dec 2020, blog.jipel.law.nyu.edu/2020/12/sherlock-holmes-and-the-case-of-the-copyrightable-character.
Stim, Richard. "Public Domain Trouble Spots." Stanford Copyright & Fair Use, Stanford Libraries, fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/trouble-spots.
--- "Welcome to the Public Domain." Stanford Copyright & Fair Use, Stanford Libraries, fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome.
United States Copyright Office. "Definitions." Copyright.gov, www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-definitions.html.
Wexler, Ellen. “Here’s What’s Entering the Public Domain on January 1.” Smithsonian Magazine, 29 Dec. 2022, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-top-ten-works-entering-the-public-domain-2023-180981370/.