Copyright and the Public Domain: What You Need to Know

Intellectual Property & Patent Law Blog
Copyrights & Trademarks
Copyright and the Public Domain: What You Need to Know

Copyright and the Public Domain: What You Need to Know

Regardless of how complicated the world of intellectual property becomes, one constant line in the sand remains for anyone attempting to protect the rights to their work. No matter what you do, do not let your intellectual property pass into the public domain.

What is the Public Domain?

But what exactly is the public domain, and why do you need to fight so hard to keep your work out of its evil clutches? The public domain is not some alternate dimension, but it is an extremely unprofitable one. The public domain consists of all works to which no person or legal entity can establish or maintain property rights or proprietary interests. It’s where valuable intellectual property goes to die.

There are four main types of work that make up the public domain: work where the copyright has expired, work where the owner failed to renew copyright protection per statute, work that fails to qualify for copyright protection and work intentionally placed in the public domain by its creators. When an intellectual property enters the public domain, it is no longer protected by copyright law and is available for public use without the need to worry about paying royalties or any legal repercussions.

There can be restrictions when using public domain material; for example, if an outside entity such as a library or archive controls the content, anyone who uses it may be subject to an access agreement designed to limit the scope of the use.

Where is the Line Between Private Work and Public Domain?

So when does something pass into the public domain? The answer is not as simple as you may think, mainly due to changing laws designed to protect valuable works on behalf of their creators or rights holders. The critical date for determining copyright status is the creation date of the content. The best approach to examine whether a work has passed into the public domain is a chronological one, which is helpful in knowing which set of rules to apply.

Assuming the creators exercised all proper procedure to protect their work, there are a few rules to determine how long copyright protection lasts:

  • If a work is published any time after January 1, 1923, but before January 1, 1964, and was renewed during its 28th year, then it is protected for 95 years from the date of publication.
  • Any work published after January 1, 1964, but before December 31, 1977, retains copyright protection for 95 years from the date of publication, with no renewal in the 28th year required.
  • Any work created before January 1, 1978, and published before December 31, 2002, keeps its copyright protection until at least December 31, 2047.
  • For any work published after January 1, 1978, the copyright remains in effect for the life of the author plus 70 years for sole authorship, and for 70 years after the death of the final surviving author for joint authorship.
  • Any work made for hire or any anonymous or pseudonymous works maintain copyright protection for either 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.


If you are unsure as to whether or not your intellectual property is protected by copyright, you need to be proactive and cover your bases before someone tries to place it in the public domain on a technicality. While there are ways to research currently copyrighted works, you should always consult with a qualified legal professional to ensure you are properly protecting your hard work. If you need help regarding a copyright or other intellectual property case, contact Michael Ahmadshahi, PhD, Law Offices today and get an initial consultation.

attorney Michael Ahmadshahi

Mr. Ahmadshahi’s area of practice is Intellectual Property Laws including Patent Prosecution and Litigation, Trademarks, Copyrights, Unfair Business Practices, and Business Litigation. He is also an entrepreneur and an inventor.

Practice Areas


Copyrights & Trademarks

Trade Secrets

IP & Business Litigation


Contact Us Today