Skip to Main Content

Copyright for Students

undefinedPublic Domain 

This refers to anything that not protected by copyright or any other law and which may be freely used by everyone.

However, there are rules as to if and when something enters into the Public Domain. 

A safe rule of thumb: if you do not know if it is in the Public Domain, it is probably protected by copyright!

Image from Emanuel Leutze / Public domain

Works fall into the public domain for three main reasons:

1. the term of copyright for the work has expired

2. the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright

3. the work is a work of the U.S. Government

Most works are considered in the public domain because of old age. This includes any work published in the United States before 1923, those works published before 1964 and whose copyright was not renewed, and a few works that were published without copyright notice (copyright notice was necessary for works published in the United States before March 1, 1989).

Infographic comparing Fair Use and Public Domain Fair Use: works used under Fair Use are still covered by copyright. Parts of a work may be used for education, research, news reporting, criticism, or parody. Permission needs to be obtained to sell or distribute the entire work. Public Domain: works in the Public Domain are not covered by copyright.  Allows for entire works to be changed adapted to other media, or reproduced with no legal consequences. Permission is not needed to sell or publish the entire work.Both: Credit must be given to the original creator by citing the source.


17 U.S.C. § 303

U.S. Copyright Office. (n.d.). Circular 15: Duration of copyright. Retrieved from

Charleston Southern University Library