How Books Enter the Public Domain

There are many books and other works that are no longer covered by copyright, or were never subject to copyright.

Under current U.S. Copyright Law, most new books and other works are protected by copyright for the duration of the author’s life plus 70 years. However, it is possible to find many previously published works that may be freely used because they are in the public domain.

The reasons that a work is in the public domain can include that it was never subject to copyright, the author elected not to exercise his or her copyright and placed the work in the public domain, or the copyright has expired. Do not assume that something is in the public domain. Always investigate the status of a work before using any part of it.

Works created by employees of the Federal government in the course of their jobs are not covered by copyright. This means that many government publications are not covered by copyright and may be freely used. Laws and court decisions are also not covered by copyright.

Simple blank forms are not subject to copyright, although forms that have some element of creativity may be copyrighted. “Common property,” such as standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, schedules of sporting events, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources is not subject to copyright; however, creative elements added to them may be protected. For example, although the standard calendar is not covered by copyright, images and design added to a calendar can be copyrighted.

In some cases, the author chooses to put the book in the public domain and not enforce their legal rights under copyright. This does not happen automatically, or due to an error such as leaving off the copyright notice. There is no set procedure for putting a book or other work into the public domain, however, the author must make his or her intention to do so clear, and must give up all rights of ownership.

When a work is covered by copyright, the protection does not last forever. The duration of a copyright is primarily dependent on when the work was originally copyrighted. See this guide to investigating the public domain status of a work.

Additional Public Domain Information

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