What Is the Public Domain?

When an idea is expressed in a fixed medium, whether it be a painting, a story, a dance choreography, or a poem on the back of a napkin (though certainly not limited to those categories), it has legal copyright protections for a set period of time, allowing the creator to use or exploit the fruit of their work as they see fit, or not at all. In the past, this copyright required some formality in the way of registration or notice, but that is no longer the case for new works.

Once that period of time expires, or if the creator failed to comply with any legal formalities required at the time of creation or thereafter, the work enters the public domain - meaning it belongs to everyone, without restriction. The creator may also decide before the expiration of copyright to dedicate the work to the public domain, giving that new creation to the public to use.

There are some expressions, including facts, local laws, or works of the US Government (to name a few), which are excluded from copyright protections. These are born directly into the public domain, free to copy, reuse, adapt or distribute.

While a copy of a public domain work gains no new copyright, a curated selection of public domain works may have a new copyright, protecting, for example, the order of appearance of those works (e.g. A collection of public domain postcards may have protection over the order and placement of these images).

Determining what is or isn't in the public domain can be a complicated and lengthy process. However, the chart below is provided to help guide you through some of the labyrinthine rules of US copyright.

Additional Resources

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States

(See footnote 1)


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