"Public domain" works are not protected by copyright. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.
An important caveat regarding public domain material is that collections, new editions, and derivative works of public domain material may all be protected by copyright. With collections, an author could collect public domain works in a book or display them on a website, and the collection as a whole could be protected by copyright, even though individual works within it are not.
There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:
In general, the copyright term for a work created in the United States after 1977 (that is not a work made for hire) is the life of the author plus 70 years.
All works published in the United States before 1924 are in the public domain.
Works published between 1924 and 1978 may be protected by copyright if they were published with notice and the copyright was renewed. There are many other scenarios and sets of circumstances that affect the copyright term of these earlier works. Help with these complicated rules, and other scenarios can be found in this chart and in the U.S. Copyright Office's circular on the Duration of Copyright
This is no longer required for works created after 1978.
To place an item in the public domain intentionally, a creator of a work would need to state that intent explicitly. If no such statement has been made, assume the work is protected by copyright. (Compare alternative licenses like Creative Commons.)
Copyright will not protect the titles of a book or movie, nor will it protect short phrases such as "Make my day" (though trademark protection may apply). Copyright protection also doesn't cover facts, ideas or theories, although it may protect the expression of those ideas.
Any work created by a U.S. government employee or officer is in the public domain, provided that the work is created in that person's official capacity. This applies only to U.S. government works, not the works of other national or state governments.
These tools can help you determine if a work has passed into the Public Domain through expiration of copyright.
Is a reprint of a public domain work protected by copyright?
Not generally, unless creative modifications are made. Modifications could include the addition or removal of any editorial material and artistic contributions, such as illustrations or a new arrangement. For these reasons, a new edition or a derivative work of existing public domain material may not be reproduced without the permission of the copyright owner.
Is a translation of a public domain work protected by copyright?
Yes. A translation is a derivative work of the original and is protected by copyright. The permission of the copyright owner is needed to translate the owner’s work into another language.
This guide is designed to provide basic, general information about copyright, and does not constitute legal advice. The links to third party sites in this guide are provided for your convenience. Boston College does not take responsibility for the content of these other sites. If you have a question about a specific copyright issue not addressed by this guide, the Libraries encourage you to seek further advice.
If you have a question about the University’s policies regarding copyright, please contact the Office of Technology Transfer and Licensing at 2-1682. If you have a question that requires the advice of an attorney, please contact the Office of the General Counsel at 2-0960.