A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone.
Works fall into the public domain for three main reasons:
1. the term of copyright for the work has expired;
2. the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright; or
3. the work is a work of the U.S. Government.
Most works enter the public domain because of old age, although a number of other variables can come into play. Use the excellent Public Domain Slider Tool to determine if a work is still protected by copyright.
The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.
To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.
Materials in the public domain are not protected by copyright and may be freely used in their entirety.
Most federal government publications and works created prior to 1923 are in the public domain. Works created between 1924 and 1989 may be in the public domain, but require more investigation.
Which government documents are in the public domain?
The majority of documents published by the federal government are in the public domain. There are some exceptions. The federal government outsources some of its research and publications to private publishers. Those works may be copyrighted. Check the specific document.
Also many state and county publications may be copyrighted; they are not necessarily in the public domain.
How do I know if a work after 1923 is in the public domain?
This depends on whether the work was published, was registered, and whether the original copyright was renewed. Use these resources to check the status of the work in question:
A work can also be an "orphan work" meaning that it may still be under copyright, yet no rightsholder can be found.
For those who wish to explore further, see: