Public Domain and Copyright Duration

Some works can never be protected by copyright. These works or elements of works are in the public domain. They include "any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such a work." Sec. 102 (b). However, patent or trademark law may protect some of these works.

Eventually, when the copyright term has expired, works are returned to the public in the public domain. Everyone and no one owns the public domain. Once materials are in the public domain, anyone can exercise a right of copyright without the prior permission of the copyright holder.

In addition, works of the U.S. government produced by government employees are in the public domain. This category includes works that are created by all agencies of the government such as the Internal Revenue Service, federal legislation, the president's speeches, and court rulings. Works created by state governments and their employees may or may not be in the public domain. You will have to check individual state statutes to make a determination since some states have elected to assert copyright protection.

The copyright term has been extended many times throughout the history of copyright law, and the rules for copyright registration, renewal and notice have also been amended numerous times. As a result, it can be very difficult to determine whether materials are protected by copyright. Many copyright duration reference guides are available to keep track of the majority of possibilities (Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States, from Cornell University).

Information on this page is from: UW-Madison Libraries; Complete Copyright: An Everyday Guide for Librarians, by Carrie Russell, pp. 3, 6, 11; and Creative Commons Deed License 2004 American Library Association.