Adopting & Creating OER

11 The Public Domain

The public domain refers to creative materials not protected by intellectual property laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist.

The U.S. Copyright Office maintains a list of common misconceptions about copyright including “Where is the public domain?” as if you go somewhere to get copyright-free material. The public domain is not a place, so you don’t go to the public domain you attain public domain material for repurposing.

An original work is public domain if copyright has expired or it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. In most cases, any work created by a federal government employee or officer is public domain. These items may be used without permission, but attribution is recommended as a moral consideration.

Four common ways that work becomes public domain (Stim, Stanford):

  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the copyright owner deliberately makes it public domain
  • copyright law does not protect this type of work.
Each year on January 1, many copyrighted works lose their protected status and become public domain. This is celebrated as Public Domain Day. Notable entries of 2024, are Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle and Disney’s Steamboat Willie.



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Connecticut College Pressbooks Creator Guide by Ariela McCaffrey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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