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Copyright at The College of St. Scholastica

Public Domain Basics

DecorativeThe public domain is the collection of expressive works for which no one owns the copyright. Works enter the public domain in a number of ways including:

  • If the copyright of a work has expired,
  • If the work did not have copyright to begin with (i.e., federal governmental works),
  • If the creator has given up his or her exclusive rights either upon completion of their work or anytime during the copyright duration,
  • If the copyright owner failed to renew the copyright properly.

 

Works in the public domain are free for anyone to use, distribute, copy, perform, build upon, change, or anything else and for any purpose that they wish. No copyright permission is required. However, it is important to understand that no one person can own an item in the public domain. It is owned by the public.

With that said, there could be other issues that arise including trademark, privacy, patent, and other issues. It is important to consider these other possible issues. Also, it is important to understand that any new derivative work, other creative work that builds on an item in the public domain, or a collection of public domain items may be protected by copyright. For example, translating a public domain book into another language may be covered by copyright. Only the original item in the public domain will be free from any copyrights.

Finally, it is important to know that the public domain is different from country to country. What might be in the public domain in one country may not be in the public domain of another country. 

There are lots of items that are not protected by US Copyright Laws. Examples include the following:

  • Works where the copyright has expired - films, music, images, books, etc.
  • Federal government works - however, works created by contractors may be covered by copyright
  • Facts or ideas
  • Systems, processes, procedures, or methods of operations - however, they may be protected by other laws like patent or trademark laws
  • Concepts, discoveries, or principles
  • Names, domain names, or titles
  • Words, lettering, numbers, symbols, punctuation
  • Slogans or short phrases - however, they may be protected by other laws like patent or trademark laws

Locating Resources in the Public Domain

Try these resources to locate items that are in the Public Domain. If you can't find what you are looking for or if you are looking for additional options, try searching for items with a Creative Commons license

Try these resources to locate items that are in the Public Domain. If you can't find what you are looking for or if you are looking for additional options, try searching for items with a Creative Commons license

Every attempt has been made to make sure that all items are in the public domain. However, the CSS Library does not guarantee it. Be sure to review the license for items you use. 

Try these resources to locate items that are in the Public Domain. If you can't find what you are looking for or if you are looking for additional options, try searching for items with a Creative Commons license

Every attempt has been made to make sure that all items are in the public domain. However, the CSS Library does not guarantee it. Be sure to review the license for items you use. 

Try these resources to locate items that are in the Public Domain. If you can't find what you are looking for or if you are looking for additional options, try searching for items with a Creative Commons license

Every attempt has been made to make sure that all items are in the public domain. However, the CSS Library does not guarantee it. Be sure to review the license for items you use. 

Additional Resources

Title: What is Public Domain?
Created by: The U.S. Copyright Office
License: Standard YouTube
Duration: 3.24 mins.

A short video discussing the basics of the Public Domain. 

Website & Resources 

Want to learn more about the public domain? Take a look at these websites and other resources!

Tools to Determine Public Domain Status

Use the following tools to investigate copyright and to help determine whether or not an item is in the public domain. 

Comics

Video

 

Title: Adam Ruins Everything - How Mickey Mouse Destroyed the Public Domain
Created by: truTV
License: Standard YouTube
Duration: 2:51 mins.

A video about today's copyright laws and the public domain.