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Copyright: Public Domain

This guide provides information (not legal advice) to support NWC community decision-making in the use of copyright protected material in research, learning, and teaching.


This guide intends to provide and refer users to accurate information. However, information received from the NWC Library or the NWC Copyright Librarian is neither legal advice/opinion nor legal counsel to the college or any members of the NWC community. Please contact the NWC Office of General Counsel or NWC Staff Judge Advocate's Office for NWC-related legal advice and interpretation of the law, or personal counsel for personal legal advice. U.S. Copyright Law is subject to change.

The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by NWC of sites or the information, products, or services contained therein, nor does NWC exercise editorial control over the information that you may find at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this guide.

Public Domain and the Copyright Lifecycle

"The public domain is an important part of the lifecycle of copyright. When a work is subject to copyright protection, its owner has a set of exclusive rights, allowing them to use or give permission for others to use the work in various ways. These include reproducing or distributing the work, creating derivative works, and publicly performing or displaying the work. When the term of copyright protection ends, these now unrestricted works often inspire the creation of new works—such as reproductions, adaptations, and derivatives. If you’re planning to use a work in the public domain to create a new work, it’s important to recognize which creative elements appear in the public domain work versus any that may have been introduced in derivative works—such as in a sequel to a novel, a movie based on a play, or a new arrangement of a musical composition. Derivative works are separate works, and copyright may still protect any new creative elements included in these later works." (U.S. Copyright Office, 2023).

According to the Library of Congress (LOC), "while copyright remains an important tool to promote creative expression, copyright protection does not last forever, and when a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain. Works in the public domain are available for use by everyone without restrictions." When something is in the U.S. public domain, it is free for others to use without obtaining permission from the owner. In other words, it is no longer protected by copyright

However, sources of public domain materials such as museums, libraries, and other institutions may impose requirements or restrictions on use in exchange for access to the materials. Additionally, some items produced by the federal government are in the public domain and applies only in the United States. These official works may include legislation, regulations, legal opinions, hearings, and speeches. An exception is that literary works produced by civilian faculty at certain military higher educational institutions like NWC for publication by a scholarly press or journal are protected by copyright.

Questions to think about when determining if a work is in the public domain:

  • What type of thing is the work you are looking at (subject to copyright protection, text vs. non-text, published vs. unpublished- including "limited publication")?
  • Where is the work published (U.S. vs. foreign publication)?
  • When was it published (publication date for formalities/requirements)?
    • Public domain rolling year date
    • Is there a copyright notice (similar to © symbol, rightsholder, and year, requirement if published prior to 1989)
    • Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office (renewal required if published prior to 1964)?

Pre-1929 United States Materials

In the United States, all materials with authorized publication dates before 1929 (and all pre-1924 sound recordings) that were published in the U.S., are in the U.S. public domain as of 1 January 2024. Each January 1st, the literature, movies, music scores, and other works released 95 years earlier enter the public domain. Keep in mind that some earlier works might still be copyright protected if their initial publication was unauthorized (the current 95-year copyright term only begins on the date of authorized publication). 

All terms of copyright run through the end of the calendar year in which they would otherwise expire, so a work enters the public domain on the first of the year following the expiration of its copyright term. For example, a book published on 11 April 1928 entered the public domain on 1 January 2024, not 11 April 2023 (1928+95=2023).

If a user wants to make a copy of an entire book that was published in the United States in 1921, it is permissible to do so. That particular book is in the public domain and is no longer protected by copyright. Sometimes new editions of a public domain work are published or may contain new analysis. In that case, the new analysis is covered by copyright but the public domain portion of the work will remain public domain.

One easy way to check if a particular item is in the public domain (especially for books) is to check the HathiTrust database. If the entire item is publicly accessible in the HathiTrust database, the library user is free to download and print that item. Also, referring users to the HathiTrust database is a nice way to save time, effort, and the expense of creating a physical copy of the work. The entire book or work might be already publicly accessible digitally to them for free in the HathiTrust database.


  • International publications and copyright terms may be different than United States publications (see Circular 38A International Copyright Relations of the United States, U.S. Copyright Office for more details).
  • If a particular work has entered the public domain, but a new annotated version of it has been published after the original was published, then copyright protection covers only the annotated portion of the original in the public domain version.
  • As of 1 January 2022, approximately 400,000 sound recordings made before 1923 joined the public domain in the U.S. for the first time due to the Music Modernization Act ( 

1929 - 28 February 1989 United States Materials

The copyright statuses for works published in the United States between 1929 and 28 February 1989 vary depending on whether certain "formation" requirements were met.  For instance, a work published in 1930 without a notice of copyright would fail to meet the legal requirements for copyright in that year and, as such, would be a public domain work in the U.S.

Similarly, a work that contained a copyright notice, and was registered with the U.S. Copyright office in 1930, but the copyright was never renewed in the 28th year after publication would also be a public domain work.

Though, if, at the end of the initial 28-year copyright term, the copyright holder renewed the copyright, the total copyright protection would be 95 years after publication date.

In order to determine which "formation" (such as copyright notice, renewal, and/or registration) requirements were required in which year, please visit the following resources:

If you have determined that a work has an authorized publishing date after 1928 and need support determining whether it was registered, had the appropriate notice, and/or was properly renewed, you can visit the following resources:

  • Stanford's Copyright Renewal Database 
    • Searchable index of the copyright renewal records for books (Class A) published in the U.S. between 1923 and 1963.
    • Only has renewal records, not original registrations, and only Class A (books) renewals between 1950 and 1992.
    • Try the "everything search" first.
    • In the results for copyright claimant designation, "A" = author, "C" = child(ren) of author, "E" = executor, "NK" = next of kin of author, "P" = proprietor of copyright, and "w" or "Wr" = widow(er).
    • Measure by next calendar year (everything is aligned with January 1st).
  • U.S. Copyright Office's Search Copyright Records: Copyright Public Records Portal (and their pilot site).
  • UPENN Catalog of Copyright Entries (CCE):
    • Coverage is from 1891-1978 with limited coverage from 1789-1870.
    • It includes a list of what is contained within each CCE record.
    • In general, it will link to scans of the CCE record hosted in Google Books, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive. The U.S. Copyright Office has been digitizing the 660 volumes of the CCE and many are now available at

To understand the abbreviations and codes used in the U.S. Copyright Office Catalog Record, please see this abbreviation and code guide. For details on the U.S. Copyright Office's Administrative Copyright Classification Systems, please see this guide. For details on supplementary registration, please see this link from the U.S. Copyright Office.

For a video explanation on determining whether a U.S. work published after 1928 through 28 February 1989 is in the public domain, please watch Sara Benson's video (10:00).

1 March 1989 - Present Day United States Materials

Works created in the United States from 1 March 1989 to the present do not require any formalities or requirements, and, if the works are subject to copyright protection, are automatically protected at the time of creation.

Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office does, however, provide some benefits to rightsholders. Submitting an application is a prerequisite for any infringement suit involving works with authorized publication in the U.S., and allows a rightsholder to collect statutory damages and attorney fees from infringers.

Additional Public Domain Resources & Tools