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Public Domain and Creative Commons: A Guide to Works You Can Use Freely: Is it a Public Domain work?

Here is an in-depth guide to using public domain and Creative Commons materials for your theses, dissertations, publications, and other scholarly projects.

How to use this chart and other tips

Determining whether or not a work is in the public domain by using copyright term duration (by date) can be complicated.  Please also see the "Definitions" tab for other kinds of works that do not qualify for copyright protection.  The charts you see to the right provide basic information on the length of copyright term for different kinds of works. 

  • Literary, musical, dramatic, audiovisual, motion pictures, and visual art is all included in the first chart.
     
  • The second chart focuses on sound recordings since the copyright durations are treated much differently than the others; here is a link to more information on this difference. 

  • Next, each category is divided into whether or not the work is published. 

  • Look at the "Qualifications" column to check for other important aspects of the work you would like to use.  For instance, see whether or not a notice was placed on the work (look for "c" in a circle then the copyright holder's name with a date; or check out Circular 22 from the U.S. Copyright Office and refer to page 5), or if the item was written anonymously.

  • Look to the last two columns to see what the duration of the copyright term would be for that work. 

  • If you cannot make a determination whether or not a work is in the public domain, then it is likely that it's still covered by copyright.  Consult with an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law for further assistance.  

Public Domain Chart

Please keep in mind that this chart only deals with works published or created in the United States.  This chart covers the basic areas of determining how long a work is covered by copyright.  For more detailed information, as well as copyright durations of foreign works, please consult Peter Hirtle's chart, "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States" , Laura Gasaway's chart, When Works Pass Into the Public Domain, or Michael Brewer's interactive web tool: Digital Copryight Slider.  You can also check the U.S. Copyright Office's Catalog of Copyright Entries to see when a work may have been registered (Digitized through University of Pennsylvania); however, this kind of searching can also become complex.  

 

 

Copyright durations for all works except sound recordings
Type of work Published Date of creation or publication Qualifications Duration of copyright Duration of copyright / works made for hire
Works that are literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, audiovisual in nature as well as motion pictures Yes Before 1923 None Public domain Public domain
1923-1963 Published with notice and not renewed Public domain Public domain
1923-1963 Published with notice and renewed 95 years after date of publication 95 years after date of publication
1923-1977 Published without notice Public domain Public domain
1964-1977 Published with notice 95 years after date of publication 95 years after date of publication
1978-present Work must be "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" Author's life plus 70 years Lesser of: publication date plus 95 years or creation date plus 120 years
No Before 1978 You know the authors' name(s) and you know whether or not they are still living. The greater duration of: the author's life plus 70 years or December 31, 2002. The greater duration of: the author's life plus 70 years, or December 31, 2002.
1978-present You know the authors' name(s) and you know whether or not they are still living. Author's life plus 70 years. Author's life plus 70 years.
Any Anonymous, pseudonymous, death date of author is unknown.  Add 120 years to the date of the work's creation.   Add 120 years to the date of the work's creation.  
Copyright duration for sound recordings
Type of work Published (Yes/No) Date of creation or publication Qualifications Duration of copyright Duration of copyright: anonymous and pseudonymous; works made for hire
Sound recordings  Yes Before February 15, 1972 None Covered under state common law until 2067 Covered under state common law until 2067
February 15, 1972-1978 Published with notice Add 95 years to date of recording's publication Add 95 years to date of recording's publication
1978-March 1, 1989 Published with notice Author's life plus 70 years Lesser of: publication date plus 95 years or creation date plus 120 years
March 1, 1989-present None Author's life plus 70 years Lesser of: publication date plus 95 years or creation date plus 120 years
No Before February 15, 1972 None Covered under state common law until 2067 Covered under state common law until 2067
February 15, 1972- present None Author's life plus 70 years Creation date plus 120 years

 

Attribution and Documentation for Public Domain Chart

Besek, J. (2005).  Copyright Issues Relevant to Digital Preservation and Dissemination of Pre-1972 Commercial Sound Recordings. (CLIR Publication no. 135). Retrieved from http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub135/pub135.pdf

Besek, J. (2009). Copyright and Related Issues Relevant to Digital Preservation and Disemmination of Unpublished Pre-1972 Sound Recordings by Libraries and Archives. (CLIR Publication no. 144). Retrieved from http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub144/pub144.pdf

Copyrights, 17 U.S.C. Chapter 3. (Cornell University 2009). Retrieved from http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode17/usc_sup_01_17_10_3.html

Fishman, Stephen. (2010). The Public Domain: How to Find and Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art and More. Berkeley, CA: Nolo.

Gasaway, L. (2003). When Works Pass into the Public Domain. Retrieved from http://www.unc.edu/~unclng/public-d.htm

Hirtle, P. (2010). Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. Retrieved from http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm

U.S. Copyright Office. (2003). Duration of Copyright: Provisions of the Law Dealing with the Length of Copyright Protection. (United States Copyright Office Circular no. 15a). Retrieved from http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ15a.pdf

U.S. Copyright Office. (2010). How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work. (United States Copyright Office Circular no. 22). Retrieved from http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ22.pdf

Disclaimer

Disclaimer: This tutorial on using public domain materials, Creative Commons licensed materials, and copyright law is provided for informational purposes only!  I am not a lawyer and cannot provide legal advice.  None of what you read in this tutorial should be construed as legal advice.  Should you require legal advice, please contact an attorney.