How to Investigate the Public Domain Status of a Work

This is a simplified explanation of how to determine if a work is in the public domain and not covered by copyright. It is intended to be a useful guide to copyright and public domain under U.S. law, but not to substitute for legal advice. In countries outside the U.S., consult with the copyright authority in your country.

The first thing to consider is the copyright date. This is usually found on the back of the book’s title page and will be in a format such as, “Copyright © 2006 John Author.”

If the work was created in 1978 or later (it does not have to be published), the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, so the work would not be in the public domain.

Works published between 1964 – 1977 have copyright protection for a period of 95 years from the date of first publication, so they are not in the public domain.

Works published before 1923 are in the public domain.

Works published between 1923 and 1963 are covered by copyright for a period of 95 years, if the copyright was renewed. It is estimated that the copyrights for about 85% of printed works were not renewed. The trick is determining if the work you wish to use was renewed and is still protected by copyright, or if it has entered the public domain.

Although it is possible to research the copyright records yourself, it is wise to invest in a search by the Library of Congress or another knowledgeable party. Verifying that a work has passed into the public domain may involve checking several sets of records. There are other factors that may affect the public domain status of a work, and there are different rules that apply to foreign works. What is public domain in one country may still be covered by copyright in another.

Copyright records since 1978 are online at If the work was published in 1950 or later, you may find the renewal in these records.

For works published between 1923 – 1950, you can search for renewal information by year at

To inquire about the Copyright Office doing the search for you, go to

A private firm that does a lot of copyright searches is Thomson & Thomson.

Additional Public Domain Information

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