11-Copyright Basics

Public Domain and Term of Copyright

Copyright protection of a work doesn’t last forever. Once the copyright term ends for a work, it enters the public domain. This means that no one owns the rights to the work anymore, so the work may be used by anyone, for any purpose, without permission. The public domain includes works where copyright has expired and works that were never protected by copyright in the first place (such as works of the U.S. federal government created by federal employees).

The public domain symbol - featuring an overlapping p and d in a circle

The public domain includes works where copyright has expired
and works that were never protected by copyright.

Activity: Finding Works in the Public Domain

The public domain provides a great source of materials that you can use for any purpose, without requesting permission or paying a fee. The internet is full of useful sites that can help you find Public Domain materials, including:


When Does a Work Enter The Public Domain?

Due to U.S. participation in international treaties and changes to U.S. copyright law, Congress has placed a limitation on the length of copyright so that works can eventually become part of the public domain and be re-used and built upon by others. Over the years the term of copyright has changed significantly.

The current term is:

  • 70 years after death of author. If there are multiple authors, then it is 70 years after the death of the last author.
  • If corporate, or anonymous, authorship the term is either 95 years from date of first publication, or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever comes first.

Term of Copyright

Since the duration of copyright has changed throughout the years, it can be difficult to determine when copyright expires for a particular work. Below are links to a couple of online sources to help you determine when a particular work enters the public domain.

Examples: Copyright Duration

The duration of copyright depends on when the work was created and whether it was the work of a single author, multiple authors, or an anonymous or corporate author.

A single author, a pair of authors, and a corporation show different methods of calculating when copyright ends.

Copyright terms are based on factors such as the date
of death of the author and on what laws were in effect
when a work was created.

  • A Brief History of Rabbits in Literature by Aaron Figgleson (1918-2002):
    Copyright ends 2072 – 70 years after the author’s death
  • Quarks: A Definitive Guide by Joseph P. Wickes (1952-2012, Raylene O. Fine (1936-2008), and Otis M. Wellborn (1919-2000):
    Copyright ends 2082 – 70 years after the death of the last author to die
  • Whose Poo Is This? A Guide to Animal Droppings by Acme Animal Industries (published 2002) – Created internally 1969:
    Copyright ends 2089 – 120 years from the date of creation
  • Advice for Parents: Good Tips from Parents by Acme Animal Industries (published 2011) – Created in blogs 2008-2011:
    Copyright ends 2106 – 95 years from the date of first publication