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Copyright Basics

Introduction to copyright protections, exceptions such as fair use, public domain, Creative Commons, and more.

What is the Public Domain?

Public domain icon, the copyright icon with a slash through itThe 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:

  • 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 (Stim, "Welcome to the Public Domain").

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). 

Determining Whether Something is in the Public Domain

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. 

Public Domain Slider

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,

  1. Select a date range. 
  2. Look at the top bar for whether the work is protected by copyright.
  3. If the status has an asterisk, you can click the status for a pop up with more details on that status, often with links for more resources.

Copyright Terms for Works Registered or First Published in the United States

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 1927 None None. In the public domain due to copyright expiration
1927 through 1977 Published without a copyright notice None. In the public domain due to failure to comply with required formalities
1927 through 1963 Published with notice but copyright was not renewed None. In the public domain due to copyright expiration
1927 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.

Cases Where Only a Part of a Work is Public Domain

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.  

  • Multilayer works: a work made up of multiple different works, which may have different copyright statuses. For example, the film It's a Wonderful Life is in the public domain because its owners failed to follow the copyright renewal rules from that time, but its soundtrack is still covered by copyright (Stim, "Public Domain Trouble Spots").
  • Derivatives of public domain works: a derivative work may be copyrightable if it adds original elements. Derivatives of things in the public domain can thus have elements that are in the public domain and elements that are not.
    • If someone created a derivative to a public domain work, any original element may be copyrightable and therefore not in the public domain (Stim, "Public Domain Trouble Spots"). 
    • Since original aspects of a derivative work can be copyrighted, these aspects may still be protected by copyright after the original work enters the public domain. For example, courts have found that even though the original Sherlock Holmes story is in the public domain, making the character public domain, copyright protection may still apply to aspects of the character introduced in books that are not in the public domain (Perrotti).

Dedicating Work Into the Public Domain

CC0 icon, a zero in a circleAs 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.

  • First, it includes language waiving all copyright protections and associated rights to the fullest extent allowed by law.
  • Second, as a backup if the waiver is not legally acceptable, CC0 provides a public license to use the work without any restrictions, including attribution ("CC0 FAQ")

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.

References

"CC0." Creative Commonscreativecommons.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.govwww.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-definitions.html.