How Can I Use Copyright-Free Works (in the Public Domain)?

You can use a work without the author's permission if it's in the public domain.

By , J.D. | Updated by Brian Farkas, Attorney

Copyright law gives creators certain exclusive rights. These rights include the exclusive ability to copy, distribute, and perform the copyrighted work.

But copyright is not infinite. Rather, it provides copyright holders with protections for a limited duration. 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. Consider the following questions to determine whether a work is available for you to use without getting permission.

Has the Copyright Expired?

To determine whether a work is in the public domain and available for use without the author's permission, you must first determine 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 was a work for hire (that is, was done in the course of employment or was specifically commissioned) or was published anonymously or under a pseudonym, the copyright lasts between 95 and 120 years, depending on the date the work was 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 U.S. Copyright Office has a number of helpful resources. Many copyrights can be searched online.

The Copyright Office will also check renewal information for you at an hourly rate. (Call the Reference & Bibliography Section at (202) 707-6850 or email [email protected]). You can also hire a private copyright search firm to see whether a renewal was filed.

If you want to go the least expensive route, you can conduct a renewal search yourself. The renewal records for works published from 1950 to the present are available at the Copyright Office website. Renewal records for works published before 1950 are available in the 660 volume Catalog of Copyright Entries, which have been digitized and made publicly available online on the Internet Archive.

Does the Work Display a Copyright Notice?

You unfortunately cannot 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. The absence of the © symbol is not determinative.

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?

Millions of works have been dedicated to the public domain. This means the author or other copyright owner chooses to give up all rights in the work forever. This is often done online using a Creative Commons CC0 license.

However, using a CC0 license is not required. A copyright owner's use of any words unequivocally dedicating a work to the public domain can suffice, for example, words such as "this work is dedicated to the public domain and may be reproduced without authorization."

Unless there is express authorization placing the work in the public domain, do not assume that the work is free to use.

Can I Use Material Found on the Internet?

Each day, people post vast quantities of creative material on the Internet. Much of this potentially qualifies for copyright protection.

Whether particular material does qualify for copyright protection depends on factors of which you would have no knowledge of, such as when the work was first published, whether the copyright in the work has been renewed, whether the work was made for hire, and whether the copyright owner intends to dedicate the work to the public domain.

If you want to download the material for use in your own work, be cautious. It's best to track down the author of the material and ask for permission. The only exception to this is if you want to use only a very small portion of text for educational or nonprofit purposes. For more information on copyright protection on the Internet, see Getting Permission to Publish: Ten Tips for Webmasters.

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). Remember that copyright litigation and liability can be expensive. You should assume that every work is protected by copyright unless you can establish that it is not. Better safe than sorry.

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