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VCCS Copyright Guide: Public Domain

Thanks to Piedmont Community College for allowing the use of their libguide as the foundation for this libguide.

What is the Public Domain?

Materials in the public domain are free of copyright restrictions and may be used without permission.

Works fall into the public domain for four main reasons:

1. the term of copyright for the work has expired;

2. the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to renew the copyright;

3. the work is a work of the U.S. Government; or,

4. the work is dedicated to the public domain and assigned a CC0 license.

As a general rule, most works enter the public domain because of old age. This includes any work published in the United States before 1923. Another large block of works are in the public domain because they were published before 1964 and copyright was not renewed. (Renewal was a requirement for works published before 1978.) A smaller group of works fell into the public domain because they were published without copyright notice (copyright notice was necessary for works published in the United States before March 1, 1989).

Search the Copyright Search Records database to check to see if the copyright is active and by whom. The Public Domain Determinations, created by Lolly Gasaway at the University of North Carolina, is a handy guide to determining whether a work you want to use is in the public domain.

Portions of this text are taken from "The Public Domain" by Rich Stim, Stanford University Libraries, licensed under a CC BY-NC license.

Is the Work in the Public Domain?

Date of Publication Copyright Term Copyright Term
Before 1923 None None. In the public domain due to copyright expiration
1923 through 1977 Published without a copyright notice None. In the public domain due to failure to comply with required formalities
1978 to 1 March 1989 Published without notice, and without subsequent registration within 5 years None. In the public domain due to failure to comply with required formalities
1978 to 1 March 1989 Published without notice, but with subsequent registration within 5 years 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first
1923 through 1963 Published with notice but copyright was not renewed None. In the public domain due to copyright expiration
1923 through 1963 Published with notice and the copyright was renewed 95 years after publication date
1964 through 1977 Published with notice 95 years after publication date
1978 to 1 March 1989 Created after 1977 and published with notice 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first
1978 to 1 March 1989 Created before 1978 and first published with notice in the specified period The greater of the term specified in the previous entry or 31 December 2047
From 1 March 1989 through 2002 Created after 1977 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first
From 1 March 1989 through 2002 Created before 1978 and first published in this period The greater of the term specified in the previous entry or 31 December 2047
After 2002 None 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first
Anytime Works prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties. None. In the public domain in the United States (17 U.S.C. § 105)

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States by Peter B. Hirtle, Cornell Copyright Information Center, is licensed under a CC BY license.