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
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,