Each New Year, a new batch of creative works enters the public domain as their copyright terms expire and they become free to use, reuse, and share. Public Domain Day is observed each January 1st to commemorate the works that enter the public domain. In 2022, thousands of works first published in 1926 became public domain, including A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Franz Kafka’s The Castle, as well as over 400,000 sound recordings from pre-1923.

What is the public domain?

Works in the “public domain” are works that are not protected by intellectual property laws, such as copyright, trademark, or patent law. These include works with copyrights that have expired or that have not been renewed, works that are not protected by copyright law, as well as works that were purposefully placed in the public domain by their creators (known as “dedication”).

How can you tell if a work is public domain?

There is no one unified public domain due to varying copyright laws around the world. However, there are three basic systems against which we can calculate most copyright terms:

  • works by people who died in 1951, for countries with a copyright term of “life plus 70 years” (e.g. UK, Russia, most of EU and South America);

  • works by people who died in 1971, for countries with a term of “life plus 50 years” (e.g. Canada, New Zealand, and most of Africa and Asia);

  • works published in 1926 (and all pre-1923 sound recordings), for the United States.

In the United States, copyright law is one of the few areas of law allocated to the federal government as outlined in the Constitution, meaning that states cannot establish their own copyright laws. The Copyright Act of 1790 was the first federal copyright law to be enacted by Congress and has undergone several amendments since. For a brief history of the development of U.S. Copyright Law, view this timeline from the Copyright Office.

Where can I find public domain or other free-to-use works?

With the advent of the digital age, there have been many initiatives to digitize works in the public domain and make them easily accessible:

  • The Internet Archive is a non-profit digital library of millions of texts, images, audio and visual content, websites, and more. Works in the public domain (published in or before 1926) are available for free download.

  • Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that offers alternatives to traditional copyright protections, including Creative Commons licenses and other public domain tools for publishers and creators. On January 20th, 2022, Creative Commons, The Internet Archive, and other open movement initiatives will be participating in A Celebration of Sound to commemorate Public Domain Day 2022.

  • HathiTrust is a digital library created in partnership by libraries and academic institutions around the world and provides access to millions of digitized titles for free.

  • Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia maintained by volunteers around the world. Wikipedia’s birthdate is observed each January 15th.

  • Library of Congress Free-to-Use: The Library of Congress makes available digitized photographs and other printed visual materials in the public domain.

For more tips on finding public domain works online, read this guide from The Public Domain Review.