Finding the Public Domain

Works enter the public domain in a few key ways:

  • most commonly, their term of protection expires
  • less commonly, if they fail to comply with certain formalities
  • they are authored by the federal government

If you’d like to know whether a particular work is in the public domain, it will be helpful to know, for starters:

  • whether it was published, and if so, when;
  • for unpublished works and works made after 1977, who was the author, have they died, and if so, when; and
  • in what country was the work first published?

Once you gather that basic information, you can head over to our Determining Copyright Status page for some helpful resources for finding whether any particular work is in the public domain, or if not, when it can be expected to shed its copyrights. For a deeper dive, you can check out the Copyright Status Databases page for sites that let you search key records for specific works.

The web contains a panoply of additional information on the public domain, as do any number of books. Be careful as you explore, however. Most importantly, watch out for books that treat 1923 as a significant year—starting in 2019, that year is no longer significant. “Published more than 95 years ago” has replaced “published prior to 1923” as the useful rule of thumb for judging whether an older work is in the public domain.