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Copyright & Fair Use: Public Domain

The purpose of this guide is to provide faculty, staff, and students at CCAC with an understanding of copyright law and fair use.


public domain

Is a reprint of a public domain work protected by copyright?
Not generally, unless creative modifications are made.  These modifications could include the addition or removal of any editorial material and artistic contributions, such as illustrations or a new arrangement of the public domain material.  For these reasons, a new edition or a derivative work an existing public domain work may be not be able to be reproduced without the permission of the copyright owner.

Is a translation of a public domain work protected by copyright?
Yes. A translation is a derivative work of the original and is protected by copyright.  The permission of the copyright owner is needed to translate the owner’s work into another language. 

Public Domain Tools

These tools can help you determine if a work has passed into the Public Domain through expiration of copyright.

What Is Public Domain?

"Public domain" works are not protected by copyright. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.

An important caveat regarding public domain material is that collections, new editions, and derivative works of public domain material may all be protected by copyright. With collections, an author could collect public domain works in a book or display them on a website, and the collection as a whole could be protected by copyright, even though individual works within it are not.

There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

•    the copyright has expired.
In general, the copyright term for a work created in the United States after 1977 (that is not a work made for hire) is the life of the author plus 70 years.
All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain.
Works published between 1923 and 1978 may be protected by copyright if they were published with notice and the copyright was renewed.  There are many other scenarios and sets of circumstances that affect the copyright term of these earlier works. Help with these complicated rules, and other scenarios can be found in this chart and in the U.S. Copyright Office's circular on the Duration of Copyright

•    the owner was required to renew the copyright and failed to do so.
This is no longer required for works created after 1978.

•    the owner deliberately places it in the public domain.
To place an item in the public domain intentionally, a creator of a work would need to state that intent explicitly. If no such statement has been made, assume the work is protected by copyright. (Compare alternative licenses like Creative Commons.)

•    copyright law does not protect this type of work.
Copyright will not protect the titles of a book or movie, nor will it protect short phrases such as "Make my day" (though trademark protection may apply).  Copyright protection also doesn't cover facts, ideas or theories, although it may protect the expression of those ideas.

Any work created by a U.S. government employee or officer is in the public domain, provided that the work is created in that person's official capacity. This applies only to U.S. government works, not the works of other national or state governments.

When is a work in the Public Domain?

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.

As a general rule, most works enter the public domain because of old age. This includes any work published in the United States before 1923. Another large block of works are in the public domain because they were published before 1964 and copyright was not renewed. (Renewal was a requirement for works published before 1978.) A smaller group of works fell into the public domain because they were published without copyright notice (copyright notice was necessary for works published in the United States before March 1, 1989).

Use the Copyright Slider Tool to determine is a work is still protected by copyright.


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