When a work becomes available for use without permission from a copyright owner, it is said to be "in the public domain." Most works enter the public domain because their copyrights have expired. Ask the following questions to determine if a work is available for you to use without getting permission.
You should assume that every work is protected by copyright unless you can establish that it is not.
Has the Copyright Expired?
To determine whether a work is in the public domain and available for use without the author's permission, you first have to find out when it was published. Then, apply the following rules to see if the copyright has expired:
- Copyrights of all works published in the United States before 1923 have expired; the works are in the public domain.
- Works published after 1922, but before 1978, are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. If the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.
- For works published after 1977, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. However, if the work is a work for hire (that is, the work is done in the course of employment or has been specifically commissioned) or is published anonymously or under a pseudonym, the copyright lasts between 95 and 120 years, depending on the date the work is published.
- Lastly, if the work was published between 1923 and 1963, you must check with the U.S. Copyright Office to see whether the copyright was properly renewed. If the author failed to renew the copyright, the work has fallen into the public domain and you may use it.
Has the Copyright Been Renewed?
The Copyright Office will check renewal information for you at an hourly rate. (Call the Reference & Bibliography Section at 202-707-6850.) You can also hire a private copyright search firm to see if a renewal was filed.
If you want to go the least expensive route, you may be able to conduct a renewal search yourself. The renewal records for works published from 1950 to the present are available online at http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright. Renewal searches for earlier works can be conducted at the Copyright Office in Washington D.C. or by visiting one of the many government depository libraries throughout the country. Call the Copyright Office for more information.
Is There a Copyright Notice?
You can't rely on the presence or absence of a copyright notice (©) to determine whether a work is protected by copyright, because a copyright notice is not required for works published after March 1, 1989. And even for works published before 1989, the absence of a copyright notice may not affect the validity of the copyright -- for example, if the author made diligent attempts to correct the situation.
Was the Work Produced by a U.S. Government Employee?
Any work created by a U.S. government employee or officer is in the public domain provided that the work is created in that person's official capacity. This rule does not apply to works created by state and local government employees.
Did the Copyright Owner Donate it to the Public?
If, upon viewing a work, you see words such as "this work is dedicated to the public domain and may be reproduced without authorization," then it is free for you to use. That's because sometimes an author deliberately chooses not to protect a work and dedicates the work to the public. This type of dedication is rare, and unless there is express authorization placing the work in the public domain, do not assume that the work is free to use.
Finding Material in the Public Domain
For help locating material you can use without permission, see The Public Domain: How to Find and Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More, by Steve Fishman (Nolo).
If you want some advice from a lawyer, Nolo's Lawyer Directory can help you find a local intellectual property lawyer.