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Copyright RCL

Resources and information regarding copyright.

More About Public Domain

Black and white photo of man and a woman on a penny-farthing bicycle, which has a large wheel on either side of the couple, one small wheel in the front, and one small wheel on the back. Both people are wearing top hats. The woman is wearing a dark corseted dress. The man is wearing a dark suit.

This image is in the Public Domain!  Source, flickr, The U.S. National Archives

Public Domain

The public domain includes works that are not protected by copyright and are available for use by the public. For example, works that are created by the United States government are in the public domain. Additionally, works enter the public domain after the expiration of their copyright. As such, works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain, and works published before 1964 are in the public domain if the copyright holder did not renew the copyright.

Ways a work may enter the public domain:

  • Copyright protection has expired

Though copyright protection lasts for an extended period of time, even after the author is deceased, it is temporary.  Once the period of copyright protection has expired, all legal restrictions cease.  Cornell University provides this chart for copyright terms in the U.S.

  • The work never had copyright protection

Some works do not qualify for copyright protection because they were produced before copyright laws existed, they don't meet the terms of originality, or because they are not protected forms of work.  Other works not protected by copyright laws:

Works created by the U.S. Government (with the exception of those created under contract)
Intangible works (ex: improvisational comedy perfromances that have not been written down or recorded)
Ideas, facts, procedures, processes, methods, and systems
Works of common knowledge with no original authorship (ex: calendars, phone books)
Words, names, slogans, short phrases, titles

  • The work is dedicated to the public domain by the author

A creator of a work may choose to forfeit his or her rights by dedicating the work to the public domain.  In this case all copyright restrictions are entirely removed voluntarily.  This is not the same thing as freely licensing the work, although it is similar.

Questions about whether a work is in the Public Domain?  Use this slider tool to help you!

Public Domain FAQ

Are modern reprints of a public domain work subject to copyright protection?

No, unless the work contains new material that constitutes a creative change to the original work.  For instance, a reprint with new illustrations, a new introduction, or other creative contributions would qualify the reprint as a derivative work.

A reprint of Moby Dick, for instance, would not be subject to renewed copyright protection.  A re-issue of Moby Dick containing a new forward by a scholar of American Literature would, however, be protected under copyright law

Are translations of public domain works protected under copyright law?

Yes, a translation is considered a derivative work and is afforded copyright protection.

Public Domain materials are free, right?

Possibly, if a public domain work has been digitized, you may be able to find it for free online.  But public domain truly refers to the intellectual property rights, meaning you are free to use the work without any type of permission, even though you may have to pay for it.  On the flip side, just because something is free, doesn't mean it isn't protected under copyright law.

What are Orphan Works?

Orphan works are still presumably protected by copyright, they are not commercially available, and the copyright holder cannot be found.  Orphan works are rather troubling because no one is benefitting from them, not the copyright holder, not the public, not even the people or organizations who contol access to the materials.  Read more about orphan works in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Out of Fear, Colleges Lock Books and Images away from Scholars."

Photocopies or Scanned Images Made with Campus Copiers

There is a notice of copyright law on the photocopiers on campus. Please take time to read the notice and the copyright section on fair use before making photocopies of copyrighted material:

NOTICE: The copyright law of the United States (title 17 U.S. Code) governs the making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted material. Under certain conditions specified in the law, libraries and archives are authorized to furnish a photocopy or other reproduction. One of these specified conditions is that the photocopy or reproduction is not to be “used for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research.” If a user makes a request for, or later uses, a photocopy or reproduction for purposes in excess of “fair use,” that user may be liable for copyright infringement. The University reserves the right to refuse to accept a copying order if, in its judgment, fulfillment of the order would involve violation of copyright law.