Determining Whether a Work is in the Public Domain
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
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Copyright does not protect work in the public domain. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it. Simply put, the public owns work in the public domain and it is available to anyone without permission from its creator. Work enters the public domain when copyright expires, when the copyright holder fails to renew it, when it was unprotected in the first place, and when dedicated to the public domain by the owner.
How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?
- Work published after January 1, 1923 but before January 1, 1964 and renewed during the 28th year is protected for 95 years from the date of publication.
- Work published between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977 is protected for 95 years from the date of publication.
- Work created before January 1, 1978 and published before December 31, 2002 is protected until at least December 31, 2047
- Work published after January 1, 1978:
- Sole authorship: life of the author plus 70 years
- Joint authorship: 70 years after the death of the last surviving author
Any work made for hire and anonymous and pseudonymous works: 95 years from the publication date or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
Work in the Public Domain Due to Copyright Expiration
- Work published before January 1, 1923.
Work in the Public Domain for Failure to Comply with Copyright Formalities
- Works published from 1923 through 1977 without a copyright notice.
- Works published from 1978 to March 1, 1989 without a copyright notice, and without subsequent copyright registration within 5 years.
Sound Recordings Due to Copyright Expiration
- Sound recordings published from Feb. 15, 1972 to 1978 without a copyright notice.
- Sound recordings published from 1978 to March 1, 1989 without a copyright notice, and without subsequent copyright registration.
Work in the Public Domain Due to Failure to Renew
- Work published after January 1, 1923 but before January 1, 1964 if the copyright was not renewed during the 28th year.
Work in the Public Domain Due to Unprotected Status
- Work published after January 1, 1923 but before March 1, 1989 without a copyright notice may be in the public domain if an exception to the law does not apply.
Work created by an employee or official of the U.S. government
- Applies to work created while performing official duties.
Is Copyright Notice Required?
Under current copyright law, automatic copyright protection applies to original works in tangible form. Earlier works published prior to March 1, 1989 were required to display copyright notice to receive protection. A valid copyright notice contained the copyright symbol © or the word "Copyright," the year of publication, and the name of the owner. Be aware, however, that even if a pre-1989 work fails to include copyright notice, it may still receive copyright protection if an exception to the rule applies.
Work Given to the Public Domain by the Owner
An author may choose to give a protected work to the public. A work that expressly states the author's intention to donate the work to the public domain for anyone to use is an unprotected work.
How to Search Copyright Records
There are several ways to conduct a copyright search, including:
- Inspect the work for copyright notice, date of publication, and authorship;
- Pay the U.S. Copyright Office an hourly fee for searching records;
- Hire a private copyright search firm;
- Search the U.S. Copyright Office's online database for work copyrighted from 1978 to the present; or
- Visit the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C or a government depository library. Available records include a card catalog, record books, and microfilm records.
Have an Attorney Help You Navigate the Public Domain
Legal professionals who specialize in intellectual property law are able to help you perform an important public domain search so you don't violate copyright laws. A lawyer can also explain the laws to you and file any forms necessary to your work.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
Contact a qualified business attorney to help you identify how to best protect your business' intellectual property.