Landman Library

Public Domain

What is in the Public Domain?

The phrase Public Domain may be very familiar to people in connection with copyright. Works in the public domain may be freely copied and used by anyone without fear of copyright infringement. But determining what is in the public domain isn’t always that easy to do.

Works published by the federal government. An example is the instructions for the IRS1040 federal tax return.

Works that have fallen out of copyright protection. The challenge here is determining what those works are. Use this interactive copyright slider to help figure out what might fall into this category.

Sometimes court cases must help to determine what is now public domain. This took place with the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Works placed directly into the public domain. Authors should have some kind of notice on the work that states it’s in the public domain. 

One way to know if a work is in the public domain is to look for a Creative Commons license in place of a ©. Learn more about this important alternative to copyright.

If there is any doubt, the assumption is very good that “the work is protected by copyright law.”

What is Not in the Public Domain?

Nearly Anything on the Internet. Because a work is publicly accessible does Not make it Public Domain.

Works that have no copyright symbol. The copyright symbol is not required for a work to receive copyright protection. Once created, protection is automatic.

Personal works. Once the work is fixed, in print or digitally, whether published or not, it is copyrighted. So even a drawing on a napkin could be copyrighted as long as it’s not mere information or common property.

Copyright Basics explains what copyright is and its nature. Read more to understand why all these statements are true.

If there is any doubt, the assumption is very good that “the work is protected by copyright law.”


Public Domain (Stanford University Libraries) is a very good, easy-to-read set of webpages with much more detail. They were authored by a copyright lawyer.

“ABSOLUTELY FREE! MUSIC, TEXT, AND ART!! COPY ALL YOU WANT!! If you saw an advertisement like this, you might wonder, “What’s the catch?” When it comes to the public domain, there is no catch.”