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Copyright and Fair Use: Public Domain

What are public domain works?

Works in the public domain lack copyright protections and, therefore, can be used in anyway you like, although the scholarly honor code still requires your reference the author through citation.

Works enter the public domain in various ways:

  • The work's copyright expires
    • Works published in the United States in or before 1924 are now in the public domain
  • The work's creator dedicates it to the public domain
  • The work never was  the type of work that requires copyright protection in the first place (i.e. slogan, idea, method)
  • The work was created by the U.S.  are government
    • Government publication are not covered by copyright 


How do I know if it's in the public domain?

These tools will help you understand the copyright status of any work created in the United States:

Copyright Genie: An interactive tool that tells you the copyright status of a work based on age and policy.

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States A chart that layout all the details of U.S. copyright law with respect to the protections for any given work.

Where can I find public domain materials?

Digitization has increasingly made works in the public domain broadly and freely available. Below are some select digital collections that include textual, visual, and audio sources. For a more complete list, visit Wikipedia: Public Domain Resources.

Digital Public Library of America

Hathi Trust Digital Library

Library of Congress Digital Collections


NYPL Digital Collections

Schomberg Digital



Creative Commons

Creative Commons licenses represent a departure from traditional copyright, which automatically reserves all rights for the creator of a work. By contrast, Creative Commons licenses offer users the ability to retain, revise, reuse, remix, and redistribute their work, depending on which license is chosen. 

The infographic below explains the six individual licenses. For a comprehensive explanation of each license, use this Choose a License tool.

Creative Commons Licenses

(Image credit: Ohio State University Libraries, Copyright Corner)