What is Public Domain?

What is the public domain?

Why does it matter to you?

The public domain is not a place.

It’s a concept that refers to everything

not protected by copyright in the United States.

It includes works that were never protected by copyright

as well as those whose term of protection has expired.

If it’s in the public domain,

it’s free to use.

The existence of the public domain means

that there is an extensive and growing

cultural legacy,

which is available to everyone as a resource for study,

development, and material for new creative works.

Let’s explore how works become a part

of the public domain.

First, material that is not covered by copyright

is in the public domain

from the time it is created.

For example, facts and ideas are not protected

by copyright law and are therefore

in the public domain.

But note that some things that are not protected by copyright

could be covered by other legal protections,

such as patent or trademark laws.

Second, a work can enter the public domain

if it was protected by copyright law,

and the amount of time it was protected for has expired.

Under the Constitution,

copyright protection has a limited time.

The founding fathers gave Congress

"the power to promote the Progress of Science

by securing for a limited time to authors

the exclusive right to writings."

Copyright law has changed over time,

so when and how a work expires changed, too.

Under current law, copyright protection covers

an original and creative work as soon as it is fixed

in a tangible medium,

even if the owner has not registered the copyright.

The term of copyright protection is the length of time

that a work is protected.

The term has changed several times over the years.

The copyright office has a number of resources

that discuss copyright terms and requirements,

including our circulars.

These resources can help you determine

if a work is in the Public Domain.

You can research copyright records on-site

and at copyright.gov.

But, you do have to be careful before using material

you think is in the Public Domain.

The basis for a work could be material

that is in the public domain,

but someone else could have made

new contributions to that material

that may be protected by copyright.

Take Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s original play is in the public domain.

There are lots of movies, books,

and updated plays that people have created

based on Shakespeare’s original work

to which they have added

their own original elements

that are copyright-protected.

The new creative expression in these works

may be protected by copyright.

So, when seeking inspiration from a work

in the public domain,

go back to the original source.

Materials in the public domain

can be found all over.

Libraries, museums, and archives

are great resources.

For more information about the public domain

and the U.S. Copyright Office,

visit copyright.gov.