menu

How to Find Out If Something Is in the Public Domain


The public domain is an expansive source of books, music, movies and other material that is free to use for any purpose, without asking permission or paying royalties. However, U.S. copyright law can be confusing to navigate as the rules for when a work enters the public domain have changed several times over the past century. Thorough research is necessary to ensure that the works you wish to use are really part of the public domain.

Locate the work's publication date. Printed works usually list the publication date next to information about the publisher. If you cannot find a publication date, you may be able to find the work's copyright registration in the Catalog of Copyright Entries, or the work may be unpublished.

Determine whether the work is eligible for public domain status. If the work was published before 1923, it is automatically part of the public domain. A work published between 1923 and 1963 may be part of the public domain, depending on whether the author renewed its copyright. An unpublished work created before 1978 may be part of the public domain, depending on the author's date of death. Works published after 1964 are not eligible to enter the public domain until at least 2019.

If you are trying to determine whether an unpublished work is in the public domain, research the author's death date. You can search death dates for free using the Social Security Death Index. An unpublished work created before 1978 enters the public domain 70 years after the author's death or in 2002, whichever is later.

Search for the work in the Catalog of Copyright Entries, a list of all works registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. If the copyright of a work published between 1923 and 1963 was not renewed in the 28th year after publication, the work is in the public domain. If the work is a collection, such as a magazine, be aware that authors' individual articles may have renewed their copyrights even if the work as a whole is not under copyright; therefore, you must research each individual article or part of the whole.

About the Author

Mara Shannon is a writer whose work appears on various websites. Shannon also blogs about gaming and literature. Shannon holds a Bachelor of Arts in music with a focus on performance.

Photo Credits
  • stnazkul/iStock/Getty Images