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Copyright and Fair Use: Public Domain

Resources to help with questions of copyright and fair use in an academic setting.

What is public domain?

A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone.

Resources for finding and accessing materials in the public domain


When is a work in the public domain?

Works fall into the public domain for three main reasons:

1. the term of copyright for the work has expired;

2. the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright or

3. the work is a work of the U.S. Government.

As a general rule, most works enter the public domain because of old age. This includes any work published in the United States before 1923. Another large block of works are in the public domain because they were published before 1964 and copyright was not renewed. (Renewal was a requirement for works published before 1978.) A smaller group of works fell into the public domain because they were published without copyright notice (copyright notice was necessary for works published in the United States before March 1, 1989).


Useful Tools

Use the Public Domain Slider tool  to determine is a work is still protected by copyright.

Use the Copyright Genie to help you find out if a work is covered by U.S. copyright, calculate its terms and protections, and collect and publish the results (as a pdf) to save for your records or further vet with a copyright specialist. 

Copyright Term and the Public Domain, a guide to copyright duration created by Peter Hirtle at Cornell University, is a comprehensive and useful resource for researching a work's copyright status. 

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Jenny Mills