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Copyright Guide

What is the Public Domain?

The term "public domain" refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.

An important wrinkle to understand about public domain material is that, while each work belongs to the public, collections of public domain works may be protected by copyright. If, for example, someone has collected public domain images in a book or on a website, the collection as a whole may be protectable even though individual images are not. You are free to copy and use individual images but copying and distributing the complete collection may infringe what is known as the "collective works" copyright. Collections of public domain material will be protected if the person who created it has used creativity in the choices and organization of the public domain material. This usually involves some unique selection process.

Example: A poetry scholar is compiling a book entitled The Best Poems of Phillis Wheatley. This scholar uses her education and expertise to determine which poems to include. The scholar's collection is protected by copyright, but the individual poems of Phillis Wheatley would be in the public domain.

There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain - as is the case with most U.S. government publications; or
  • copyright law does not protect that particular type of work

Source: Modified from Welcome to the Public Domain, Stanford University Libraries (License: CC BY-NC 3.0)

How can I tell if something is in the public domain?

This can be tricky to determine. Generally, if a work was published in the U.S. prior to 1923, it is in the public domain. However, there may be some exceptions - which is when it gets tricky! 

We recommend consulting:

How can I find things in the public domain?

Check out our section on finding resources you can use legally.

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