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Copyright, Fair Use, & Creative Commons: Public Domain

What is Public Domain?

Some creative works are not protected by copyright law and can be freely used--these works are called Public Domain works.

There are four main reasons a work can be in the Public Domain:

  • It is a type of work that is never subject to copyright protection. For example, government documents are not protected by copyright.
  • Copyright protections have expired. Copyright law by nature grants creators time-limited rights to their work, so many older works are now in the public domain.
  • The owner of the work placed it in the public domain before the ending of the copyright term.
  • The owner of the work failed to assert copyright according to the laws in place at the time of creation. Copyright protection today is automatic in most countries, but this has not always been the case.

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

Creative Commons License Copyright Guide by Gretchen Scronce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY).