Landman Library

Public Domain

Works that aren't under any copyright protection


Public Domain Defined

What it is and why to care

Public domain is a status that a created work can have that does not have copyright protection because it doesn’t comply or has fallen out of protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely.


What is in the Public Domain?

Examples for deepening understanding

The phrase "public domain" may be very familiar to people in connection with copyright. Determining what is in the public domain isn’t always that easy to do.

(Certain) Works published by the federal government  For instance the instructions for the IRS1040 federal tax return or US Copyright Law itself.

Works that have fallen out of copyright protection  Specifically because of their age. The current term is the life of the author plus 75 years, but in the past, the law has also defined shorter periods or whether or not the work used the copyright symbol ©. The challenge here is determining what aspects of the law applied when. This interactive copyright slider can help figure out what might fall into this category.

Sometimes court cases must help to determine what is now public domain. This took place with the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Works placed directly into the public domain  Authors should have some kind of notice on the work that states it’s in the public domain.

One way to know if a work is in the public domain is to look for a Creative Commons license in place of a ©. Learn more about this important alternative to copyright.

If there is any doubt, the assumption is very good that the work is protected by copyright law.


What is Not in the Public Domain?

Equally important for avoiding misunderstanding

So many works on the internet  Because a work is publicly accessible does Not make it public domain.

Works that have no copyright symbol  The copyright symbol is not required for a work to receive copyright protection. Once created, protection is automatic.

Personal works  Once the work is fixed, in print or digitally, whether published or not, it is copyrighted. So even a drawing on a napkin is copyrighted as long as it’s not mere information or common knowledge.

Copyright Basics explains what copyright is and its nature. Read more to understand why all these statements are true.

If there is any doubt, the assumption is very good that the work is protected by copyright law.

Read more: Public Domain (Stanford University Libraries) is a very good, easy-to-read set of webpages with much more detail.


Finding Public Domain Works

Ways to make more of this type of work

To find public domain works, do an internet search and see what people are recommending, e.g.: "find public domain images" (no quotation marks). Here are a few (As of fall 2020. Arcadia University does not necessarily endorse any.):

Pexels  "Hand-picked to ensure a very high quality."

Unsplash  Professional, high-resolution photographs that are free of licensing requirements.

Videvo  Free and subscription video and audio content.