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Student Copyright Guide: Public Domain

This guide is an overview of copyright law, terms, and practices.

What is the Public Domain?

The public domain consists of works that are available for the public to use without restriction, as they are not protected by copyright.

Works can be in the public domain for several reasons:

  • The copyright protection has expired.
  • The work was intentionally placed in the public domain by the author.
    • Dedication is when the author explicitly states that the work is dedicated to the public domain, making it free to use. If this is not clearly authorized, always assume it is copyrighted.
  • The type of work is not protected by copyright laws.
    • For example, works produced by the U.S. Government fall into the public domain.
    • See "What is Not Protected?" for more examples.

When Do Works Enter the Public Domain?

The following is a basic breakdown of when works enter the public domain.

  • As of January 1, 2020, works published in the U.S. before 1924 are in the public domain due to old age.
  • Some works published between 1924 and 1963 also fall into the public domain. In order for this to be true, the author must have failed to renew the copyright (a practice that was in effect at the time). Each work published in this window must be assessed individually to determine whether the copyright was renewed. Stanford University created a Copyright Renewal Database for this purpose.
  • Eligible works created after 1963 are still protected by copyright, and are not in the public domain unless specifically dedicated by the author.

This guide was created by Sarah Schaffer, Class of 2020, as a Professional Writing internship project for the Rohrbach Library.