How to Find Public Domain Works

Curious how to find public domain works? While many works are still under copyright protection, you can also find and access a broad range of works that aren't-if you know where to look.

What is the public domain?
When a work is written, it's protected under copyright for a certain period of time. The exact length of time varies depending on the type of work and when it is created. Once a copyright expires, that work is considered to be in the public domain, and anyone can utilize and change the work in part or in whole, without copyright infringement.

General guidelines for public domain works.
Some works are already in the public domain by current copyright law, while others are coming. The general guidelines for public domain are:

  • Works created before 1923 are public domain works.
  • Works published between 1923 and 1963 are initially protected for 28 years. Creators can renew protection for up to 67 more years. If the copyright is not renewed, those works are public domain.
  • Works published between 1964 and 1977 are automatically protected for 28 years and extended for 67 years; the creator does not need to renew protection. These works are public domain 95 years after publication, the earliest of which would be 2059.
  • Works created after January 1, 1978, are protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years.

Additionally, government documents are generally public domain, as are many research books published before 1964 that did not renew copyright protection.

How to check copyright protection on a piece.
You can check the status of copyright protection on a piece in a few different ways. If the work was published after 1978, you can check copyright status online at copyright.gov/records. For records before 1978, you can either check the copyright yourself, or pay a third-party to check for you. To check copyright status yourself, you'll need to check the Library of Congress or a Federal Depository library that carries copyright information. The Copyright Office can perform a record search for a fee, or you can pay a third-party to conduct a copyright search for you.

Popular Web sites for public domain works.
Some online Web sites contain copies of public domain works on the Web. You can use these Web sites to access public domain works in part or in whole. One of the most popular Web sites that maintains public domain works is Project Gutenberg. It's the oldest public domain project, and contains over 30,000 books, as well as many CDs and DVDs.

Other online resources for public domain works are:

  • Internet Archive: Internet Archive contains moving images, live music, audio and text.
  • Internet Public Library: The IPL is the first public library on the Internet.
  • Ibiblio.org: Iblibio is an open source collection.
  • Bartleby: Bartleby contains reference works and other texts online.
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