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Copyright and Licensing for Digital Projects

This guide supports scholars who want to learn about applying Creative Commons licenses to their creative digital works. It is also a resource to find Creative Commons licensed digital media and support for making fair use judgments.

What is Public Domain?

Public domain logo

What is Public Domain?

The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. 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.

Determine Public Domain Status

The table below, borrowed from Stanford's helpful and thorough fair use and copyright guide, provides general guidelines for when works are likely to enter the public domain.

Table for Determining Public Domain Status by Rich Stim/Stanford. Used under CC BY-NC

Works published in the US before 1924

In the public domain.

Works published in the US after 1924 but before 1964

Initial term of 28 years. If not renewed during the 28th year, the work falls into the public domain.

Generally, if a work was published after 1922 but before March 1, 1989

Generally, if a work was published without copyright notice under the authorization of the copyright owner and the law does not  provide an exception for the omission, the work is in the public domain.

For a more detailed version, see the Cornell Copyright Term chart, below.

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

  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
  • copyright law does not protect this type of work.