Copyright, a fundamental concept in creative industries, grants creators the exclusive right to control and benefit from their original works.

However, this monopoly doesn’t last forever.

These works eventually enter the public domain and are accessible to anyone.

But how does this transition occur?

This article will shed light on “how copyright work arrives in the public domain” and gives you knowledgeable insight into it.

What is the Public Domain?

Creative works that are not covered by IP statutes like copyright, trademark, or patent laws are referred to as “public domain”.

A work is considered to be in the public domain when the creator’s or copyright holder’s exclusive rights to it have either passed away or do not apply.

Once these works are in the public domain, anybody can access them and utilise them for things like research, education, and creative expression.

How Does Copyright Work Arrive in the Public Domain?

Works can enter the public domain through four common pathways:

Copyright Expiration

As of 2019, copyright protection has expired for all works published in the United States before 1924.

This means that if a work was published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1924, you are free to use it within the United States without seeking permission.

These expiration rules apply regardless of whether the work was created by an individual author, a group of authors, or as a work made for hire by an employee.

Due to legislation enacted in 1998, no new works entered the public domain between 1998 and 2018 solely based on copyright expiration.

However, starting in 2019, works published in 1923 reached their expiration point.

Each subsequent year, works published in the corresponding year will expire accordingly. For instance, in 2020, works published in 1924 became free to use, and this pattern continues.

For works published after 1977, the copyright term is determined based on the authorship.

If a work was written by a single author, the copyright will persist until 70 years after the author’s death.

Copyright protection for works with multiple authors and published after 1977 extends for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author.

It’s crucial to consider these copyright expiration guidelines to determine the status and permissible use of works, respecting the rights of creators and the public domain accordingly.

The Copyright Failed to Affix the Required Notice

If a work was published in the U.S. before 1978 and did not include the required copyright notice, it would immediately enter the public domain.

The copyright notice typically consisted of the copyright symbol © (or ℗ for phonorecords), the word “copyright” or its abbreviation “copr.,” the name of the copyright holder, and the date of first publication.

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Between 1979 and 1989, works published in the United States could still enter the public domain if certain conditions were met.

In particular, if a registration was submitted to the Copyright Office within five years of the work’s first publication and reasonable measures were taken to fix the error on all copies circulated in the country.

Failure to Comply with Copyright Renewal Rules

Many works published in the United States prior to 1964 entered the public domain because their copyrights were not renewed within the required timeframe under the applicable law.

For works published before 1964, copyright owners were obligated to submit a renewal application to the Copyright Office during the 28th year after publication.

Failure to renew resulted in the loss of copyright protection for those works.

If you intend to use a work that was published before 1964, it is advisable to conduct research using the records of the Copyright Office to ascertain whether a renewal was filed for that particular work.

This will help you determine the copyright status and whether the work has entered the public domain.

Dedication by the Copyright Owner

If you encounter a work that explicitly states, “This work is dedicated to the public domain,” it indicates that you are free to use it.

Occasionally, authors choose not to assert copyright protection and instead dedicate their work to the public.

However, such dedications are infrequent, and it is important not to assume a work is free to use unless there is a clear authorisation for public domain dedication.

Another consideration is whether the person making the dedication possesses the right to do so.

The authority to dedicate a work to the public domain lies solely with the copyright owner, who may not always be the creator of the work.

If there is any doubt, it is recommended to contact the copyright owner to verify the validity of the dedication.

Works by U.S. Government Employees

If a work is created by a U.S. government employee in their official capacity, it does not qualify for copyright protection. Such work is regarded as being in the public domain.

This means that anyone can freely use, copy, modify, and distribute the work without seeking permission or facing copyright restrictions.

This rule applies only to works created by federal government employees in their official capacity. However, it does not include works produced by employees of state or local governments.

Ineligibility for Copyright Protection

Copyright law does not protect certain works, such as titles of books or movies, short phrases, and facts, ideas, or theories.

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For example, the title “Fantastic Adventures” for a book series cannot be exclusively copyrighted, and phrases like “Beam me up” from a TV show are not protected.

Additionally, copyright does not cover factual information or abstract concepts.

These limitations are important to consider when understanding the scope of copyright protection.

Short Phrases

Short phrases, like “Catch-22” or “The early bird gets the worm,” cannot be copyrighted.

These are commonly used expressions that belong to our shared language and can be used by anyone freely.

However, it is important to take trademark protection into consideration.

While a brief phrase may not be subject to copyright, it can still receive protection as a trademark if it is utilised to symbolise a distinct brand or product.

If you were to use a similar phrase in a way that causes confusion or suggests an affiliation with that company, it could infringe on their trademark rights.

Facts and Theories

Federal Copyright law does not protect facts, ideas, or theories.

For instance:

Consider an author who writes a non-fiction book about a historical event.

In the book, they gather a range of facts and explore different theories surrounding the event.

While the author’s unique way of expressing and organizing the information is protected by copyright, the actual facts and theories they present are not eligible for copyright protection.

This allows others to utilise the same facts and theories in their own works without violating the author’s copyright.

It is important to acknowledge and uphold the copyright protection of the author’s original expression and arrangement of the information.

Is it Permissible to Utilise Materials Discovered on the Internet?

Like other forms of creative work, using content from the internet is subject to copyright laws.

The fact that not all online content can be used without authorisation should be emphasised.

Most content, including writing, photos, videos, and music, is subject to copyright protection unless otherwise indicated.

It’s crucial to take copyright protection into account when you come across content online.

Permission from the copyright holder is often needed to use copyrighted content in your own work or for other purposes.

Use of copyrighted content without authorization may have legal repercussions.

However, in other circumstances, such as with Creative Commons licenses, the material is expressly licensed for a specific use.

These licenses offer permissions and rules for using the content within predetermined bounds.

It is essential to read and abide by any licenses connected to the content you intend to use.

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In conclusion, despite the enormous amount of content that is accessible online, it is crucial to respect copyright laws, obtain the necessary permits, or use licensed content to ensure adherence to intellectual property rights.


Understanding how copyright works transition into the public domain is vital in navigating the complex realm of intellectual property laws.

The arrival of material into the public domain is primarily influenced by the expiration of copyright, as determined by the copyright statute and duration.

This basic copyright issue holds significance for both creators and users of creative materials.

While legal systems differ globally, exceptions to copyright may exist, allowing for the preservation of moral rights and freedom of expression.

From original authorship to sound recordings and musical compositions, various sets of circumstances contribute to the journey of copyright-protected works becoming public domain material.

Exploring these intricacies enables us to appreciate the balance between the rights of creators and the availability of cultural heritage for all to enjoy and build upon.


How do works enter the public domain?

Works can enter the public domain through factors like expired copyright, dedication by the copyright owner, or ineligibility for copyright protection.

Where can I find public domain material?

Public domain material can be found in online resources, library archives, government databases, copyright catalogs, and through specialised public domain tools.

Can I use public domain material without permission?

Yes, you can use public domain material without permission as it is free for anyone to use, modify, and distribute without copyright restrictions.

Do I need to attribute the original author when using public-domain material?

While not legally required, it is good practice to attribute the original author of public domain works as a sign of respect and acknowledgment.

Who is the owner of rights in copyright?

The owner of rights in a copyright refers to the individual or entity that possesses the legal rights to a copyrighted work. This could be the original creator, a company, or someone who has acquired the rights from the creator.

Where to find public domain content?

Numerous websites offer collections of public domain material, including books, images, music, and films. Websites like Project Gutenberg, Wikimedia Commons, and Creative Commons provide access to a vast range of public domain works.