Public Domain

What is it?

The term “public domain” refers to works in which copyright has expired, the work is so old as to have been created before copyright or those works for which the author has declared them to be in the public domain immediately. Although there are exceptions, published works enter the public domain 50 years after the death of the author. At that point permissions are no longer required for reproduction or distribution.

For example, although the copyright in Shakespeare’s plays expired long ago, many of the published editions of his plays contain added original materials (such as footnotes, prefaces etc.) which are copyright protected because the authors have used skill and judgment in creating the new material. This creates a new copyright in the added original material, but not in the underlying text of the original work in which the copyright had expired.

Not everything you find on the internet is in the public domain just because it is publicly available. Most of the material you find online is protected by copyright, however, you may nonetheless be able to use it for educational purposes because many uses will be covered by fair dealing or the exception for educational use of material publicly available through the Internet.

A common misconception is that works in the public domain do not require citations or attribution. This is not true. Rules governing plagiarism and academic integrity still apply to works in the public domain.

For more information on determining if material is in the public domain, consult the University of Alberta Public Domain Flowchart or the detailed section of our website here.

Note: Some copyright owners have made clear declarations that certain uses of their copyright works may be made without permission or payment.  The Reproduction of Federal Law Order, for example, permits anyone, without charge or request for permission, to reproduce Canadian laws and decisions of federally-constituted courts and administrative tribunals in Canada.

Questions or comments?

We'd be happy to help out. Please send us your copyright questions and comments.

Dalhousie Libraries Copyright Office website is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The University of Alberta's Public Domain Flowchart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License (CC BY 2.5 CA).