Public Domain

This Research Guide provides information on the Public Domain and suggestions for resources to find public domain items.

How do I determine if copyright has expired?

Determining the copyright status of a work can be tricky, as U.S. copyright law has changed over the years. The length of copyright protection depends on several factors, including if the work is published or un-published and when it was created.

Generally, these works have entered the public domain:

  • All works published in the U.S. before 1924 *
  • All works published with a copyright notice from 1923 to 1963 without copyright renewal
  • All works published without a copyright notice from 1923 to 1977
  • All works published without a copyright notice from 1978 through March 1, 1989, and without subsequent registration within 5 years 

*As of 2019. Works published in 1924 will enter the public domain on January 1, 2020.

Copyright Terms in the United States

What is a copyright notice?

A common misconception is that in order to be protected by copyright, a creator must register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office and place a copyright notice on their work. In fact, current US law does not require the use of a copyright notice or registration with the Copyright Office.

A copyright notice is simply a notice provided by the copyright owner that notifies the user of their underlying copyright. The notice is the sole responsibility of the author and you do not need permission from the Copyright Office to place a notice. 

The copyright notice generally includes:

  • The copyright symbol ©
  • The year of first publication of the work
  • The name of the copyright owner1

In the past, it was mandatory to use the copyright notice on published works. Depending on the timeframe when something was published, whether or not a work has a copyright notice could have resulted in loss of copyright protection. 

Even though it is not required, it could be highly beneficial to register your copyright with the Copyright Office and to place a copyright notice on your work. These simple steps help inform users of your rights as an author.

1. “Copyright Notice and Registration,” n.d.