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Is It In the Public Domain? Learn How to Tell.

Updated on January 27, 2015
Detail from Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco. Painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512.
Detail from Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco. Painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512.

How can you tell if a work is in the public domain?

My aim for this hub is to show you how to figure out if a work is in the public domain, and also to point you to sites where you can find wonderful public domain books, photos, music, and more (which you can use however you like).

I also hope that this hub will help you see how important the public domain is ... and that you’ll help promote and protect it.

Note: This hub is about the public domain in the United States. Copyright laws differ from country to country — what's in the public domain in the US might not be in the public domain elsewhere.

First things first. What is the public domain?

In the US, the public domain is an important part of what is often called the "copyright bargain." Authors (which means all creators, not just writers) are granted a set of exclusive rights for a limited time, in exchange for making their works available to the public. And when that limited time expires their works enter the public domain, where everyone can use them freely.

Here's what the US Constitution has to say:

The Congress shall have the Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. (Article I, section 8, clause 8)

The goal of copyright is to "promote the progress" of knowledge, to encourage creativity and innovation.

The public domain is a vital part of this. Creators get exclusive rights for a specific period of time, after which others can build upon those works and use them to make new ones. And really, isn't that the way the creative process works? Romeo and Juliet becomes West Side Story, which in turn inspires West Bank Story.

It's not just works with expired copyrights that inhabit the public domain. A work may also be in the public domain, and free for you to use, because:

  • the work wasn't eligible for copyright in the first place; or
  • the copyright owner didn't follow certain requirements (back when there were some); or
  • the work's creator has dedicated it to the public domain.

Before 1998, the copyright term for works published before 1978 (the date of the current Copyright Act) was 75 years from the date of publication. What that meant was that every year more pre-1978 works would enter the public domain, until they were all there. But then in 1998 Congress decided to freeze the public domain for 20 years.

(If you'd like more information, there's a tutorial on copyright and the public domain on my Web site.)

How long does copyright last?

And what's with the extra 20 years of copyright protection?

The copyright term in the United States is now life plus 70 years. Congress extended the duration of copyright by 20 years (from life plus 50) when it passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) in 1998.

Life plus 70 years is a long time, yes? But it was a disappointment to some. Speaking to a congressional committee prior to the passage of the CTEA, Mary Bono, the widow of musician-turned-congressman Sonny Bono, invoked then-MPAA president Jack Valenti's wish that copyright last for 'forever minus a day':

"Actually, Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever. I am informed by staff tha such a change would violate the Constitution. . . . As you know, there is also Jack Valenti's proposal for the term to last forever less one day. Perhaps the Committee may look into that next Congress." (CR.144.H9952)

The additional 20 years wasn't just applied to new works. It was applied retroactively to works that were about to enter the public domain, in effect freezing it. Because of the CTEA, none of these works will enter the public domain until 2019. Who convinced Congress to do this? You know who. Movie studios, corporations, and the heirs of songwriters like George Gershwin.

So what works are in the public domain?

Here's the easy stuff. If the work was published before 1923, it's in the public domain. And if the work was published after 1963, its copyright has not expired.

That's it for easy, I'm afraid. You can't know how long a work's copyright term will last (or if it has already expired) unless you know when (or if) the work was published. A work's publication date will determine whether the current Copyright Act applies, or if the previous one does.

If you want to know whether a specific work is in the public domain, and you have gathered some information about it (like a publication date), you can check this chart, or this copyright term calculator.

Resources to get you thinking about copyright and the public domain

Starting with the US Copyright Office Web site (and why not?), here are some sites to get you thinking.

Additional reading

Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity
Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity

Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig shines a bright light on the public harms being caused by our current (big media influenced) copyright laws. Enlightening and entertaining. Not written in legalspeak, thankfully. This is an inspiring and, at times, infuriating book. A great read.

 

The six questions you must answer when assessing works

Imagine that you just found a great photograph of Theodore Roosevelt and you want to use it in a book you're writing. Is it in the public domain? You'd think it must be by now, right? But you want to be sure. (You do want to be sure, right?)

Since there's no directory of public domain works to consult, how can you figure out if the photo is in the public domain? Well, to start you'll need to know:

  1. When the work was created.
  2. When (or if) the work was registered with the US Copyright Office.
  3. When the work was first published.
  4. Where the work was first published.
  5. Whether the work was published with a valid copyright notice.
  6. When (or if) the work's copyright was renewed.

Once you have gathered enough information to answer these six questions you'll know the copyright status of the photo.

A note about google book search

How do you find downloadable public domain books with Google Book Search? Well, according to Google you simply select the "Full view" radio button when you search on books.google.com. Just enter your terms (for example, horses).

Unfortunately, some searches done this way will bring back results that aren't clear as to which books are public domain (and therefore downloadable). So another way to do it is to limit your search to books that were published before 1923. You'll have to put in a date range, though. I usually use between 1790 and 1923.

What's with Google's "terms" in these public domain books?

First off, I think Google Book Search is a great thing. I really do. I just wish they wouldn't confuse people by adding what look like restrictions.

Google asks that you (among other things):

  • Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Google Book Search for use by individuals, and we request that you use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.
  • Maintain attribution The Google "watermark" you see on each file is essential for informing people about this project and helping them find additional materials through Google Book Search. Please do not remove it.

Google has confirmed that those are just requests, they're not legally binding terms. (Source: Search Engine Land)

So no worries. You can use the books however you wish.

Joy to Thee Great Queen We Bring. Terzetto. Mozart. Courtesy of the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.
Joy to Thee Great Queen We Bring. Terzetto. Mozart. Courtesy of the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.

Sources of public domain sheet music

If you're looking for public domain sheet music, a word of caution: there are a lot of sites on the Web that offer sheet music for free, but "free" and "public domain" aren't synonymous.

That said, here's a list of sites where you can find sheet music that truly is in the public domain.

Chopin Early Editions

University of Chicago collection including over 400 first and early printed editions of musical compositions by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), all published before 1881. All of the scores in the collection have been digitized.

Christian Classics Ethereal Hymnary

database and indexed archive of public domain tunes for hymns, chants, and carols in electronic formats including MIDI files, printable sheet music, and editable electronic musical scores. It does not include hymn texts or lyrics.

Free Sheet Music Directory: Free-Scores.com

Index to more than 1600 web sites that offer free sheet music. The site also claims to have more than 3000 downloadable public domain pieces (in PDF). Much of the sheet music you'll find through this site is in the public domain, but not all.

The Mutopia Project

More than 700 pieces of sheet music, free to download, print, perform, and distribute. (And the number keeps going up all the time.) Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Scott Joplin, and more. You'll also find some modern editions, arrangements, and new music.

Public Domain Music List (PD Info)

Alphabetical reference list of public domain songs, searchable by title. You can also browse alphabetically or by various groupings (Christian Hymns, Christmas Songs, and John Philip Sousa). Some of the sheet music is available in individual reprints or sheet music books for sale though the site.

Please take a moment and let me know whether you found this lens useful or how I can improve it. Thanks!

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    • pdsherpa profile imageAUTHOR

      pdsherpa 

      5 years ago

      @BorednBroke: Glad it was good for you!

    • BorednBroke profile image

      BorednBroke 

      5 years ago

      It was good for me. Was wondering about this while making my first handful of lens.

    • Steve Dizmon profile image

      Steve Dizmon 

      6 years ago from Nashville, TN

      Useful and pertinent information. I have Bookmarked the Lens. Thank You.

    • pdsherpa profile imageAUTHOR

      pdsherpa 

      6 years ago

      @OldStones LM: Thank you!

    • OldStones LM profile image

      OldStones LM 

      6 years ago

      Very good information here. I just wnted to say that Public Domain Sherpa is the best site I have come across on the subject of Public Domain and Copyright Law. Very well done!

    • profile image

      pawpaw911 

      7 years ago

      Very useful information for any lens maker. Thanks.

    • Puckwudgie profile image

      Puckwudgie 

      7 years ago

      Informative, well organized, and not tedious - nicely done!

    • profile image

      tssfacts 

      7 years ago

      Great article with lots of information we all need to refresh and review from time to time.

    • sheilamarie78 profile image

      Sheilamarie 

      8 years ago from British Columbia

      This lens is very helpful. What about using the Youtube module on a lens? Are there any cautions about posting music or film clips that appear there?

    • profile image

      anh2blog 

      8 years ago

      Great post! thank you so much.

    • wilddove6 profile image

      wilddove6 

      8 years ago

      Wonderful and needed information!

      A favorite now :)

      Thank you so much!

    • pdsherpa profile imageAUTHOR

      pdsherpa 

      9 years ago

      Thanks very much! I'm especially glad you noticed the lack of hype. :-)

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      9 years ago

      Extremely helpful lens - and refreshingly hype-free. I have lensrolled this. :-)

    • profile image

      jooloo 

      9 years ago

      Fantastic lens. I was tearing my hair out looking for public domain works. Thanks. jooloo

    • profile image

      Gail47 

      10 years ago

      Great information! Thanks for compiling this info.

    • profile image

      schabotte 

      10 years ago

      Great source material. I wish all of this information was available when I got my start in selling public domain works way back in 1997.

      I'm working on my own set of lenses related to my experiences with the public domain at The Public Domain Income Plan

      Stop on by and check it out.

      Steven

    • triathlontraini1 profile image

      triathlontraini1 

      10 years ago

      Great lens! I have a lens on Resources and Guides for Free Images. It includes a large list of image resources and guides as to how to use them on your lenses. Would you mind adding it to your section -More copyright and PD lenses on Squidoo:

    • profile image

      Mandalay92 

      10 years ago

      This is very helpful. The only way to improve it that I can think of is to add more links to websites with public domain stuff!

    • pdsherpa profile imageAUTHOR

      pdsherpa 

      10 years ago

      Glad you found the lens helpful. Renewal searches can be a pain, depending on when the book was first published. Have you tried a records search at the Copyright Office web site? There's also a page on my web site about copyright renewal ... but I should add some info here. Thanks for pointing that out!

    • Bookmama2 profile image

      Bookmama2 

      10 years ago

      I did find this helpful, but I'm still a little confused on how to determine whether a book's copyright was renewed. I'm guessing not since I see people selling an ebook version of this book, but... I sure would feel better if I knew for sure.

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