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Copyright for Educators

This guide can help faculty and staff understand the exceptions and limitations to copyright in an academic setting

What Public Domain Means

Though applied automatically the moment a work becomes fixed in a tangible medium, there are two things you need to remember about copyright:

  1. Copyright protection does NOT last forever
    • Copyright holders are offered a limited amount of time to enjoy their exclusive rights
  2. Once copyright has expired the work is placed in the public domain and may be freely used
    • In other words, there is no need to seek permission or to pay a licensing fee

Works in the public domain offer the most flexibility for educators in the classroom setting. With no restrictions on use these types of works can be quoted extensively, used in their entirety, or serve as the foundation for new creative works.

How Works Get There

The majority of works in the public domain are there because of age. Anything published in the United States before January 1st, 1923 is in the public domain. Unpublished works of authors who died before 1945 are also free of copyright restrictions. Due to copyright law extensions that have taken place, the1923 date for published works will remain fixed until 2019. For a more thorough evaluation of complications with public domain in the United States, see this article by Peter Hirtle.

However, age is not the only factor. Generally speaking, a work can enter into the public domain in four ways:

  1. Automatic entry upon creation of the work
    • e.g. United States Government documents and publications*
  2. Creator has forgone their exclusive rights by placing the work into public domain
    • e.g. some Creative Commons Licensing options
  3. Copyright owner lost their exclusive rights
    • lack of registration renewal (prior to 1978)
    • lack of copyright symbol (prior to 1989)
  4. Copyright term has expired

*The work must be prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of their official duties. This means that works created by contractors may be subject to copyright restrictions, even if the work was federally funded. For more information on this topic, see this article by Bonnie Klein.

Finding Public Domain Works

Useful Tools

Below is a set of helpful tools for determining whether or not a work is still protected under copyright law:

Public Domain Symbol

Public Domain Symbol