Skip to Main Content

Copyright Policies and Guidelines

Public Domain

If a work is considered a part of the public domain, this means that it does not has an active  copyright associated with it. This usually applies to older works that have aged out of the copyright limitation as well as to works expressly created to be open resources. As a general rule, if the work you would like to use is found in the public domain, it is available for use.

Public Domain: Celebrating the Lifecycle of Copyright

From the Library of Congress; 2019. 80 minutes.


The Public Domain Explained

All works first published in the United States prior to 1928 are considered to be in the public domain in the United States.

Works published between 1928 and 1989 vary:

  • 1928-1978 without a notice, are in the public domain.
  • 1978-1989 without a notice and not registered within 5 years, are in the public domain.
  • 1928-1963 with a notice, but not renewed are in the public domain

Materials created since 1989, other than those created by the U.S. federal government, are presumptively protected by copyright... In addition, you must also consider other forms of legal protection, such as trademark or patent protection, before reusing third-party content.


Public domain materials generally fall into one of four categories:
  1. Generic information, such as facts, numbers and ideas.
  2. Works whose copyrights have lapsed due to the passage of time or the failure of the copyright holder to renew a registration (a requirement that applies to works created before 1978).
  3. Works created prior to March 1989 that failed to include a proper notice of copyright.
  4. Works created by the U.S. federal government.
  • Also, in rare instances, works may be "dedicated" (donated) to the public domain."


Examples of resources in the public domain:
  • Common-knowledge: well-known dates, general ideas, accepted theories and facts, short phrases, basic symbols, etc.
  • Most older works, often called "classics":
    • literature such as Frankenstein (1818), Jane Eyre (1847), or works by Shakespeare.
    • art, such as certain works by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Cézanne, or Van Gogh.
    • film such as A Star Is Born (1937), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), or Night of the Living Dead (1968).
    • music, such as certain works by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, or Brahms.



  • Creative Commons works with this mark CC0 have no rights reserved.
    • "CC0 [is] a public domain dedication for rights holders who wish to put their work into the public domain before the expiration of copyright."
  • Creative Commons works with this mark PDM have no known copyright.
    • "Public Domain Mark [is] a tool for marking a work that is in the worldwide public domain."
  • This chart explains the differences between CC0 and public domain.


Note: Please consult our Copyright Policies and Guidelines guide and our Creative Commons guide to ensure you are following correct procedure and attributing/citing properly, or ask a librarian!


Remember: "Works that are in the public domain in one legal jurisdiction are not necessarily in the public domain worldwide. Copyright laws differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, both in duration of protection and what constitutes copyrightable subject matter."



Quoted text: Copyright Clearance Center. "Copyright: An Overview." Copyright Infringement, edited by Roman Espejo, Greenhaven Press, 2009. Opposing Viewpoints. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, published as "Copyright Basics,", 2008.

                    "Public Domain." Creative Commons, 2 Dec. 2013, This wiki is licensed to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

                    "Frequently Asked Questions." Creative Commons, 2019, This content is licensed to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

How to Find Public Domain Resources Library Guide

For additional information on the public domain, please see our library research guide "How to Find Public Domain Resources."