Public Domain Material Found Online

Full Question: Am I allowed to use archived or public domain works that are found online?

Answer: Works that lack copyright protection, and thus fall in the public domain, are available for everyone to use freely and without permission. A work may “fall into” the public domain for a variety of reasons but most commonly for any of the following three

  • it is a government publication;
  • the copyright term has expired; or
  • the copyright owner has freely committed the works to the public domain.

You should not assume that just because a work appears online it is free to use. The Copyright Office provides a searchable database that can be used to check the copyright status of registered works. The Copyright Office also publishes a circular that discusses investigating the copyright status of a work is here. Unfortunately, copyright status searches are not conclusive in all cases. There are various situations in which a work may be protected even if no information is available about the work in the Copyright Office records.