The term “public domain” encompasses those materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. No individual owns these works; rather, they are owned by the public. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission and without citing the original author, but no one can ever own it.
There are 4 common ways that an item will arrive in the public domain:
1. The copyright has expired
- Copyright has expired for all works made in the United States prior to 1923. If the publication date is before January 1, 1923, then the work is in the Public Domain.
- Because of legislation passed in 1998, copyright expiration was extended. Works published in 1923 will expire in the year 2019; in 2020, works published in 1924 will expire.
- For works published after 1977, copyright will not expire until 70 years after the last surviving author dies.
2. The copyright owner failed to follow rules for renewal
- Works published in the United States before 1964 fall into the public domain if copyright was not renewed with the Copyright Office during the 28th year after publication. No renewal meant a loss of copyright.
- For works published between 1923 and 1964, research with the Copyright Office is needed to know whether the item is in the Public Domain. For a helpful guide to researching Copyright Office records, please see this guide from Stanford University Libraries.
3. The copyright owner deliberately places the item in the Public Domain
- Sometimes, a copyright owner will choose to release their work to the Public Domain. They can do this via a CC-0 license or by placing a statement such as "This work is dedicated to the Public Domain" on their work.
- It is important to verify that the person dedicating the work to the Public Domain is, in fact, the owner of the copyright for the work.
4. Copyright law does not protect this type of work
- Copyright law does not protect the titles of books or movies, nor does it protect short phrases such as, “Beam me up.”
- Copyright protection also doesn’t cover facts, ideas, or theories, which has important ramifications for the collection of data. While the facts of data are not subject to copyright, their organization may be.
More information is available from "Welcome to the Public Domain" from the Stanford University Libraries and Public Domain Slider from the American Library Association.