When is work considered to be in the “public domain”?

Public domain refers to collections of work that are available to the public without requiring permission to use. Work is considered “public domain” after a certain amount of time has passed. In general, anything created before 1920 is public domain. When a more modern work is considered public domain depends on when the copyrights have expired or lapsed. Learn more about copyright laws in our legal guide below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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The “public domain” refers to any created work that does not get copyright protection by law or protection under the copyright statutes has lapsed. By definition, materials in the public domain do not have federal copyright protections and thus you do not need permission from the creator or owner for rights to use these materials.

The primary types of works that fall into this category are those created or written before 1920. Under modern copyright systems, anything written or created before this time is no longer protected under copyright law unless an act of congress has extended its copyright status. To date, the Walt Disney cartoons are one of the few artworks that have received this special copyright extension.

Read on to learn more about public domain laws. If you still need free legal advice, we can help. Enter your ZIP code to get started now.

What works are considered to be in the public domain?

There are some general rules you can follow to determine most things that fall under public domain. If it was created before copyright laws existed, it should be covered under public domain now.

If the copyright of a work has expired, which is common for literary classics, that will have changed to public domain. The same is true if it never had a copyright. For example, it may have not had a notice of copyright. This mainly applies to work before 1989.

Some creators make their work without profit in mind, and they may donate it to the public domain from its creation.

Older works that are in the public domain can be reprintedWorks created by the government, with a few exceptions, also apply.

Each January 1st is considered Public Domain Day, when works that were made 95 years prior enter new public domain material. This applies to work that was created between 1923 and 1977, a rule that was created by the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act. There are exceptions, but the majority of the work produced that year becomes public property.

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What are examples of public domain works?

Examples of public domain works in this category include most classical music including works written by Bach, Beethoven, Schuman, and Triccovski. Artwork such as the Mona Lisa and literature such as Shakespeare, Poe, and Wordsworth books are also in the public domain. However, reproductions and translations of these works are not if they were created after 1920.

So, for example, if you are planning on placing a recording of the Moonlight Sonata into your film project, you must either record it yourself or find an audio recording that was produced before 1920. Otherwise, permission is required from the copyright owner.

You can also blatantly use works of public domain to inspire your creative work. Novels that are inspired by Jane Austen books can use the characters and settings without needing permission because Jane Austen works are now public domain.

The second type of works that are always public domain status are works created by the U.S. government. These works fall under this category because they were paid for by public funds. This means that if you wish to play a government public service announcement in your classroom or you wish to distribute a government brochure, you do not need the government’s approval because there are no copyright restrictions on these resources.

Internet Publication: Not necessarily in the public domain?

One of the more controversial and misunderstood areas of copyright protection is internet publication. Contrary to the wording, however, whether materials are published to the public has no relationship to copyrights or whether they fall into the Public Domain. This mistaken notion has somehow led many to believe that everything on the internet — including articles images, films, books, artworks, illustrations, songs and other recordings — is public and therefore in the Public Domain and freely usable for your own purposes without permission.

This notion is completely false. In other words, unless the website ends in .gov (government created websites), it cannot be re-published without the author’s approval. This applies to pictures, music, movies, and videos that are on the internet. Once a person has created a story, image, film, character, or other work and published it on the internet, it is copyrighted whether or not they have used a notice of copyright (the copyright symbol – ©) on their work.

Using these copyrighted works onto the internet is considered publication and is copyright infringement. If copyright-protected works are published on the internet without the copyright holders’ permission, it could result in fines and other legal actions.

How can you get legal help?

If you are unsure whether a work that you are using is public domain, contact a copyright attorney for assistance or attempt to obtain permission from the author.

Now that you’ve read up on public domain laws, do you still need legal advice. If so, let us help. Enter your ZIP code to get started now.

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