A public domain work is a creative or intellectual work that copyright law does not protect. These works of authorship, be they music, plays, books, poetry, or art, may be used freely by anyone once they enter the public domain. Once the copyright terms end, the public has “the right to copy” – meaning anyone can copy or reproduce the work, physically or digitally.
The reasons that the work is not protected include:
(1) the term of copyright for the work has expired; (2) the author failed to establish or renew lapsed copyright (3) the work was produced under the aegis of the U.S. Government.
In general, since 1/1/1978, as soon as an artistic work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is protected by copyright for the duration of the author’s life, plus 70 years. Below is a simple chart of the basic details of the current U.S. policy on copyright status:
|Date of Work||Protected from||Term|
|Created January 1, 1978, or after||When work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression||Author death + 70 years|
|Published before 1923||In public domain||None|
|Published from 1923-1963||When published with © or other notice||28 years+ could be renewed for 47 years, now extended by 20 years for a total renewal of 67 years. If not so renewed, now in public domain|
|Published from 1964 – 1977||When published with © or other notice||28 years for the first term; now an automatic extension of 67 years for the second term|
|Created before January 1, 1978, but not published||January 1, 1978, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright||Author death + 70 years or December 31, 2002, whichever is greater|
|Created before January 1, 1978, between then and December 31, 2002||January 1, 1978, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyright||Author death + 70 years or December 31, 2047, whichever is greater|
Some examples of public domain books:
- Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
- Henri Bergson: Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic
- Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Notes from the Underground
- Horace: The Works of Horace
- James Joyce: Ulysses
- Franz Kafka: Metamorphosis
- Marcel Proust: Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way
- Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Since 2020, several notable books have entered the public domain, allowing for their widespread availability and adaptation. Among these works are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.