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This guide provides an introduction to U.S. copyright law and associated resources related to education and scholarship.

What is the public domain?

Public Domain

  1. "A category of media content not subject to copyright restrictions."
  2. "A metaphorical area or repository in which information is placed to which members of the public have unrestricted access."

A Dictionary of Media and Communication, 3rd ed.


How do I determine if a work is in the public domain?

Due to changes in copyright law over the years and variances by content type, it can be tricky to determine whether a work is in the public domain. Luckily, there are tools and guidelines that can help. If you're still unsure of a work's copyright status, remember to document your "good faith effort" to assess the work and your use of it. Contact a librarian if you need more help.

** Click Here to Download a Template for Documenting Your Analysis **

Guidelines to start with:

  • Does copyright law protect this type of work?
  • Has the copyright owner deliberately placed it in the public domain?
  • Has the copyright has expired?


What is always in the public domain?

  • Works published in the U.S. before 1926
  • Any work created by a federal government employee or officer as part of their official duties
  • The law (government statutes, ordinances, regulations, or judicial decisions)
  • Short phrases, facts, and theories

What is an orphan work?

decorative image of Little Orphan AnnieOrphan works are "works protected under copyright whose owners are difficult to locate" (Nolo's Plain-English Law Dictionary).

Orphan works pose a problem because a large amount of history can be lost if works are not reproduced or preserved due to the inability to secure permission. Though no legislation specifically details how to deal with orphan works, the U.S. Copyright Office has issued a report to study the issue and propose solutions.

Image Credits:

Little Orphan Annie illustration by Ethel Franklin Betts from Project Gutenberg