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Copyright and Fair Use: Public Domain

Answers to common copyright questions asked by librarians and faculty

Public domain: An introduction

The public domain consists of works that are ineligible for copyright protection, works with expired copyrights, or those that have been placed in the public domain by the creator. These materials are owned by no one and are considered "public property." As such, they are available for anyone to use without permission.

Remember: just because something is in the public domain doesn't mean you shouldn't cite it.  Always give proper credit to your source!

What's in the public domain?

In the United States, the following are generally in the public domain:

  • Works published before 1923
  • Works published between 1923 and 1964 and copyright NOT renewed
  • Works created by the U.S. government
  • Works dedicated to the public domain by their creators

Use the public domain "slider" from the ALA Copyright Toolkit. (Slider requires Flash Player to be downloaded).

January 1 of each year is Public Domain Day. See what entered the public domain Jan.1, 2022. (Among them are the first Winne the Pooh book by A. A. Milne, the first published novels of Faulkner and Hemingway, and the first published book of poems by Langston Hughes). From the Public Domain Day website: 

"Now the wait is over. How will people celebrate this trove of cultural material? The Internet Archive will add books, movies, music, and more to its online library. HathiTrust will make tens of thousands of titles from 1926 available in its digital library. Google Books will offer the full text of books from that year, instead of showing only snippet views or authorized previews..."

Duration of copyright is related to public domain. For works created after 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus seventy years. For works created before 1978, different duration amounts, terms, and requirements exist.