Understanding Copyright and the Public Domain
Works in the public domain are creative works that are not protected by copyright law and are free for the public to use as they wish.
Common misconceptions regarding public domain:
- An item is not in the public domain just because it sits on the Internet, and just because someone claims an item on the Internet is public domain doesn't mean it really is.
- Just because there is not a © followed by a date and copyright owner's name on an item does not mean that a work is not under copyright protection.
- Just because a © is on an item does not mean it is still under copyright.
- An item being "out of print" is not the same as an item's copyright having expired.
Unfortunately, there is not a master list of all items in the public domain, therefore, you often need to determine the status of a work yourself. In establishing whether or not an item is in the public domain, the following points are useful to remember:
- Everything published in the United States before 1923 is in the public domain.
- Works published from 1923-1963 in the United States whose copyright was not renewed are in the public domain.
- Foreign works published before 1909 are in the public domain.
- Foreign works published from 1909-1923 with copyright notices are in the public domain.
- Works created by a U.S. federal government officer or employee as part of the person's official duties are public domain. This would include items published by the U.S. Government Printing Office; IRS publications; supreme court decisions; official speeches, letters and documents by the President among many other items.