Public Domain Mastery

Rules and Definitions for Public Domain Works

When creative works are referred to as being “in the public domain,” this signifies that they are either not, or that they are no longer, protected under copyright law.

A creative work can be anything: a book, a play, audio recordings, music, sheet music, films, photographs, posters & illustrations, courses, articles, instruction manuals, etc.

There are a number of reasons why something might be in the public domain. The most common three reasons being that:

  1. the copyright on the work has expired; or
  2. it was never copyrighted; or
  3. it is/was not eligible to be copyrighted.


When a work is in the public domain, then anyone is free to use it, or parts of it, in almost any way they wish. This includes republishing and reselling it either as a whole work, or dissecting parts of it for republishing, or modifying the original work and using it as a basis for a new or revised work. No royalties are due or payable to the original creator of the work.


Some Items That Are Not Eligible for Copyright Protection

There are a number of categories of works that are ineligible for copyright protection. Some of these include:

  • Words, names, slogans and most short phrases cannot be copyrighted (although some of these can be trademarked);
  • Blank forms used to record information are in the public domain;
  • Common property: height and weight charts, tape measures, rulers, calendars, etc. (although the design component and photos or illustrations on a chart or calendar can be);
  • Recipes: a list of ingredients is not copyrightable, but explanations, methodologies and notes in a recipe can be.


U.S. Federal Government Produced Works

Another major and important source includes U.S. Federal government works. Whether published or unpublished, if it is prepared by an officer (elected or appointed official, including the president and supreme court justice) or employee of the U.S. federal government within the performance of their duties to the government, then it is in the public domain. This includes a huge amount of material: speeches, letters, documents, nearly everything published by the U.S. printing office, IRS, CIA, FBI, FTC, Copyright Office, Patent Office, and all other Federal agencies (with the obvious exception of classified materials).

The logic behind this is that because the materials produced by these agencies were tax payer funded, they therefore belong to the public. Note that this logic does not apply to other English speaking countries. For example, Canadian government material is “copyrighted under the crown,” which leads me to suspect that the same would apply in other Commonwealth countries such as the UK, Australia & New Zealand, South Africa, India and Malaysia.

There are some exceptions to U.S. government works. For example, most works published by the U.S. Postal Service after 1972 are copyright protected. Also, if the work was created for the U.S. Federal government or one of its agencies by an independent contractor, then generally it is not public domain. Also the public domain rule does not necessarily apply to state or local government works.

The profit possibilities from this treasure trove of U.S. government material are only limited by your imagination. I’ve heard of an individual who has made a killing, if you’ll pardon the pun, by taking the official Navy Seals Manual and modifying it to create his own ‘Special Forces Handbook’ to resell to military enthusiasts.

Take a look at the homepage of to get an idea of some of the available categories, which include topics such as Money & Credit and Small Business. And if you are a Spanish speaker, many U.S. gov’t websites include mirrored content in Spanish, which is also public domain.


Rules for Works Published in the United States

Outside of items which are either not eligible for copyright protection, that have been donated to the public domain, or that are in the public domain by default, remain all other works. This is the greater body of created works.

The following table defines the copyright coverage periods for works published within the United States.


Copyright Status

Published before 1923

The work is in the public domain.

Published 1923-1963 and the copyright was not renewed in the 28th year after publication

The work is in the public domain.

Published 1923-1963 and the copyright was renewed in the 28th year after publication

After 95 years from the date of first publication it will be in the public domain.

Published between 1964-1977

After 95 years from the date of publication.

Created before 01-Jan-1978 but not published

Life of the author plus 70 years or 31-Dec-2002, whichever is greater.

Created before 01-Jan-1978 but published between then and 31-Dec-2002

Life of the author plus 70 years or 31-Dec-2047, whichever is greater.

If it was created (does not have to be published) in 1978 or later

The life of the author plus 70 years – for multiple authors it is 70 years after the last one dies. Works made for hire are protected for 95 years from first publication or 120 years from date of first creation (whichever is first).

For businesses or individuals who are not U.S. based and who are selling U.S. public domain content, or a product derived from U.S. public domain content, to customers outside of the USA, it’s important to be aware of the possibility of that material still being under copyright in their own country, or in another country that they are selling to. Public domain lawyer Bob Silber discusses this in a Q&A session on the legal aspects of using the public domain, and provides some suggestions on what non-U.S. residents can do to safeguard themselves against this type of situation. A purchase link to this Q&A session will be forthcoming shortly (June-July, 2024).

The next article of this e-course series will cover information on how to create and profit from public domain derivative works. It’ll be posted before the end of June, 2024.

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