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This website should now be used as an historical reference.

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Public Domain

A definition

Works which are not owned by someone, and therefore not protected by copyright.

A work may be in the public domain because:

  1. it was created before copyright laws (example: the Bible),
  2. its copyright protection has expired (example: Moby Dick),
  3. it never had copyright protection or its protection was lost (example: a work published before March 1, 1989 and did not carry a copyright notice),
  4. it was dedicated to the public domain.

In addition, the following items are never covered by copyright:

  1. works created by the U.S. government (except under contract).
  2. reprints of works in the public domain (but a license may restrict use.)
  3. ideas, facts, and common property (i.e., calendars and phone books)
  4. federal laws and court decisions
  5. words, names, slogans and phrases
  6. most blank forms
  7. recipes, discoveries, procedures, and systems (but not the words that describe them.)

If the work is not one of these works and was published after 1988, it is not in the public domain. Due to new laws extending copyright, no new work will enter the public domain until 2019.

Also, as noted on the previous Web page in this unit, after a certain period of time, some works enter the public domain. But how long that is depends on when the work was created. From a research standpoint, items in the public domain can be reproduced without fear of copyright violation. However, you may want to cite the source in your bibliography as a courtesy to the source as well as to your readers.

Just because an item is old doesn't guarantee that it is part of the public domain. If you're at all uncertain, get permission from the creator or owner to use or copy the work.

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