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When U.S. Works Pass Into the Public Domain

Definition: A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and
which may be freely used by everyone. The reasons that the work is not protected include:
(1) the term of copyright for the work has expired; (2) the author failed to satisfy statutory
formalities to perfect the copyright or (3) the work is a work of the U.S. Government.

Date of WorkProtected FormTerm
Created 1-1-78 or afterAs soon as the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expressionLife +70 years 1 (or in the case of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation 2).
Published before 1923In public domainNone
Published from 1923-63When published with notice 328 years plus the option to renew for another 67 years. If not so renewed, it is now in the public domain.
Published from 1964-77When published with notice 328 years for the first term, plus an automatic extension of 67 years for the second term.
Created before 1-1-78 but not published1-1-78, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyrightLife + 70 years or 12-31-2002, whichever is later
Created before 1-1-78 Published between then and 12-31-20021-1-78, the effective date of the 1976 Act which eliminated common law copyrightLife + 70 years or 12-31-2047, whichever is later

The term of joint works is measured by the life of the longest-lived author.

Works for hire, anonymous and pseudonymous works also have this term. 17 U.S.C. § 302(c).

Under the 1909 Copyright Act, works published without notice went into the public domain upon publication. Works published without notice between 1-1-78 and 3-1-89 (the effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act) retained copyright protection only if an effort to correct the accidental omission of notice was made within five years, such as by placing notice on unsold copies. 17 U.S.C. § 405.

“When U.S. Works Pass Into the Public Domain” chart courtesy of Laura Gasaway, Paul B. Eaton Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of North Carolina School of Law.