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Copyright Basics: Public Domain

This guide will help you learn more about copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons.

What is Public Domain?

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Works that are in the public domain are no longer, or never were, under copyright protection. These works can be used and reused however the user wishes; there is no need for seeking permission from the owner. There are four ways that items arrive in the public domain:

  • The copyright has expired.
  • The copyright owner has failed to renew their copyright.
  • The copyright owner has deliberately placed the item in the Public Domain.
  • The copyright law does not protect the type of work.




Watch this video by the U.S. Copyright Office to learn more about the ways that items enter the public domain.

Works that are in the public domain include:

  • Works published before 1926 in the U.S.
  • Works published 1926-1964 in the U.S. and were not renewed.
  • Works published without a copyright before March, 1, 1989

Even if a work is in the public domain, it is always best to provide citation for the work or provide a record of who created it so that others can find it themselves.

Is it Public Domain?

Smithsonian Institution