Copyright does not protect work in the public domain. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it. Simply put, the public owns work in the public domain and it is available to anyone without permission from its creator. Work enters the public domain when copyright expires, when the copyright holder fails to renew it, when it was unprotected in the first place, and when dedicated to the public domain by the owner.
How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?
Any work made for hire and anonymous and pseudonymous works: 95 years from the publication date or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
Work in the Public Domain Due to Copyright Expiration
Work in the Public Domain for Failure to Comply with Copyright Formalities
Sound Recordings Due to Copyright Expiration
Work in the Public Domain Due to Failure to Renew
Work in the Public Domain Due to Unprotected Status
Work created by an employee or official of the U.S. government
Is Copyright Notice Required?
Under current copyright law, automatic copyright protection applies to original works in tangible form. Earlier works published prior to March 1, 1989 were required to display copyright notice to receive protection. A valid copyright notice contained the copyright symbol © or the word "Copyright," the year of publication, and the name of the owner. Be aware, however, that even if a pre-1989 work fails to include copyright notice, it may still receive copyright protection if an exception to the rule applies.
Work Given to the Public Domain by the Owner
An author may choose to give a protected work to the public. A work that expressly states the author's intention to donate the work to the public domain for anyone to use is an unprotected work.
How to Search Copyright Records
There are several ways to conduct a copyright search, including:
Have an Attorney Help You Navigate the Public Domain
Legal professionals who specialize in intellectual property law are able to help you perform an important public domain search so you don't violate copyright laws. A lawyer can also explain the laws to you and file any forms necessary to your work.