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Provides basic information about copyright, fair use, the public domain, and offers links to websites to learn more about copyright issues.

What is the Public Domain?

The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.

There are generally 3 different ways a work enters the Public Domain:

  • Works created by the United States government are automatically in the Public Domain. As taxpayers, we have already paid for the creation of works by the US government, and therefore own the rights to any work created by its employees. 
  • Works whose copyright has expired. Copyright terms vary depending on the type of work and the publication status. Generally, any item published before January 1, 1923  is in the Public Domain. For more information,  see Peter Hirtle's "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States."
  • Works released into the Public Domain by the author. Some authors choose to give up  their intellectual property rights and publish their works in the Public Domain.


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