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.
An important wrinkle to understand about public domain material is that, while each work belongs to the public, collections of public domain works may be protected by copyright. If, for example, someone has collected public domain images in a book or on a website, the collection as a whole may be protectable even though individual images are not. You are free to copy and use individual images but copying and distributing the complete collection may infringe what is known as the “collective works” copyright. Collections of public domain material will be protected if the person who created it has used creativity in the choices and organization of the public domain material. This usually involves some unique selection process, for example, a poetry scholar compiling a book—The Greatest Poems of e.e. cummings.
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.
The following section looks at each of these routes into the public domain more closely.
As of 2019, copyright has expired for all works published in the United States before 1924. In other words, if the work was published in the U.S. before January 1, 1924, you are free to use it in the U.S. without permission. These rules and dates apply regardless of whether the work was created by an individual author, a group of authors, or an employee (a work made for hire).
Because of legislation passed in 1998, no new works fell into the public domain between 1998 and 2018 due to expiration. In 2019, works published in 1923 expired. In 2020, works published in 1924 will expire, and so on.
For works published after 1977, if the work was written by a single author, the copyright will not expire until 70 years after the author’s death. If a work was written by several authors and published after 1977, it will not expire until 70 years after the last surviving author dies.
The Renewal Trapdoor
Thousands of works published in the United States before 1964 fell into the public domain because the copyright was not renewed in time under the law in effect then. If a work was first published before 1964, the owner had to file a renewal with the Copyright Office during the 28th year after publication. No renewal meant a loss of copyright.
If you plan on using a work that was published before 1964, you should research the records of the Copyright Office to determine if a renewal was filed.
If, upon viewing a work, you see words such as, “This work is dedicated to the public domain,” then it is free for you to use. Sometimes an author deliberately chooses not to protect a work and dedicates the work to the public. This type of dedication is rare, and unless there is express authorization placing the work in the public domain, do not assume that the work is free to use.
An additional concern is whether the person making the dedication has the right to do so. Only the copyright owner can dedicate a work to the public domain. Sometimes, the creator of the work is not the copyright owner and does not have authority. If in doubt, contact the copyright owner to verify the dedication.
Copyright Does Not Protect Certain Works
There are some things that copyright law does not protect. Copyright law does not protect the titles of books or movies, nor does it protect short phrases such as, “Make my day.” Copyright protection also doesn’t cover facts, ideas, or theories. These things are free for all to use without authorization.
Phrases such as, “Show me the money” or, “Beam me up” are not protected under copyright law. Short phrases, names, titles, or small groups of words are considered common idioms of the English language and are free for anyone to use. However, a short phrase used as an advertising slogan is protectable under trademark law. In that case, you could not use a similar phrase for the purpose of selling products or services.
Facts and Theories
A fact or a theory—for example, the fact that a comet will pass by the Earth in 2027—is not protected by copyright. If a scientist discovered this fact, anyone would be free to use it without asking for permission from the scientist. Similarly, if someone creates a theory that the comet can be destroyed by a nuclear device, anyone could use that theory to create a book or movie. However, the unique manner in which a fact is expressed may be protected. Therefore, if a filmmaker created a movie about destroying a comet with a nuclear device, the specific way he presented the ideas in the movie would be protected by copyright.
In some cases, you are not free to copy a collection of facts because the collection of facts may be protectable as a compilation.
Copyright law does not protect ideas; it only protects the particular way an idea is expressed. What’s the difference between an idea and its expression? In the case of a story or movie, the idea is really the plot in its most basic form. For example, the “idea” of the movie Contact is that a determined scientist, seeking to improve humankind, communicates with alien life forms. The same idea has been used in many motion pictures, books, and television shows including The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Abyss, and Star Trek. Many paintings, photographs, and songs contain similar ideas. You can always use the underlying idea or theme—such as communicating with aliens for the improvement of the world—but you cannot copy the unique manner in which the author expresses the idea. This unique expression may include literary devices such as dialog, characters, and subplots.
In a 2003 case, the producers of the television show Survivor claimed that their show was a “new genre” of television show with a unique format combining the elements of “voyeur verité, hostile environment in the deserted island sense, building of social alliances, challenges arising from the game show element, and serial elimination.” They sued to prevent a similar reality-competition show called Celebrity.
The court found that this genre of television show was an unprotectable idea, as is any genre. In other words, anyone could produce a show based on the basic idea of contestants in a “reality” situation eliminating each other. Celebrity would infringe on Survivor only if it copied a substantial amount of the specific details of Survivor, which it did not do. There were many differences between the two shows—for example, the way the contestants were eliminated—and Celebrity had an audience participation element and a comedic tone, unlike the serious Survivor. (CBS Broadcasting, Inc. v. ABC, Inc., 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20258 (S.D. N.Y. 2003).)
U.S. Government Works
In the U.S., any work created by a federal government employee or officer is in the public domain, provided that the work was created in that person’s official capacity. For example, during the 1980s, a songwriter used words from a speech by then‑President Ronald Reagan as the basis for song lyrics. The words from the speech were in the public domain so the songwriter did not need permission from Ronald Reagan. Keep in mind that this rule applies only to works created by federal employees and not to works created by state or local government employees. However, state and local laws and court decisions are in the public domain. (See “Are Local Laws in the Public Domain?” above.)
Some federal publications (or portions of them) are protected under copyright law, which is usually indicated on the title page or in the copyright notice. For example, the IRS may acquire permission to use a copyrighted chart in a federal tax booklet. The document may indicate that a certain chart is “Copyright Dr. Matt Polazzo.” In that case, you could not copy the chart without permission from Dr. Polazzo.
The table below may help you determine public domain status.
Table for Determining Public Domain Status
Works published in the U.S. before 1924
In the public domain
Works published in the U.S. after 1923 but before 1964
Initial term of 28 years. If not renewed during the 28th year, the work falls into the public domain.
Works published in the U.S. after 1923 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