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Copyright Clarity: Public Domain

Confused about the difference between copyright, fair use, and the public domain? Not sure what you can freely use versus what you need permission to use? Wondering where plagiarism comes into play?

What is in the public domain?

Public domain works are not restricted by copyright and do not require a license or fee to use. Public domain status allows the user unrestricted access and unlimited creativity!

There are three main categories of public domain works:

  • Works that automatically enter the public domain upon creation, because they are not copyrightable:
    • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans, familiar symbols, numbers
    • Ideas and facts (e.g., the date of the Gettysburg Address)
    • Processes and systems
    • Government works and documents
  • Works that have been assigned to the public domain by their creators
  • Works that have entered the public domain because the copyright on them has expired
  • All works published in the U.S. before 1923
  • All works published with a copyright notice from 1923 through 1963 without copyright renewal
  • All works published without a copyright notice from 1923 through 1977
  • All works published without a copyright notice from 1978 through March 1, 1989, and without subsequent registration within 5 years

Congress has passed a series of laws extending the term of copyright. Currently, the default term is life of the author plus 70 years. That means that most of the copyrighted works created from the late 1970s to the present may not become public domain during your lifetime.

In general, works published after 1977 will not fall into the public domain until 70 years after the death of author, or, for corporate works, anonymous works, or works for hire, 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.