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Copyright and Fair Use: Public Domain

A primer on the U.S. Copyright Act and Fair Use.

Copyright Questions?

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This guide provides a basic primer about copyright and fair use for instruction.  If you have specific questions, please e-mail


These pages were created to provide basic copyright information and are not a substitute for legal advice.

Just for fun. . .

Visit the Center for the Study of Public Domain at Duke University to find out what could have entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2012.

Public Domain

According to, "a work of authorship is in the public domain if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection."  Works in the Public Domain are appealing because they may be used without requesting copyright permission from the former rights holder.  Typically documents produced by the government are excluded from copyright and belong to the public. Other materials generally become public property because of their age.   


Materials fall into the Public Domain because their copyright has expired or they were published:

  • in the United States before 1926
  • before 1964 but the copyright was not renewed  (Copyright renewal was necessary for works published before 1978)
  • from 1926 through 1977 without a copyright notice

Sections 301 to 305 of the U.S. Copyright Law address the duration of copyright and explain how long materials are copyrighted based upon their publication date, or in some cases, whether or not they were ever published. 

Public Domain Tools

Copyright law has undergone many changes, so interpreting when works fall into the Public Domain can be daunting.  The following resources can help determine if a work is still under under copyright:


Public Domain Defined
Stanford University Libraries, Copyright and Fair Use
Peter Hirtle, Cornell University
Public Domain Assessment (online tool)
Michael Brewer and the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy
Pubic Domain Resource List
Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office