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If a work is in the public domain, it means that it is no longer under the jurisdiction of any copyright or licensing agreements (Butler, 2014). Works in the public domain can be altered, recreated for profit, copied, or used in any way without the authorization of whomever originally possessed the copyright (Butler, 2014). After a period of time, works that enter the public domain allow for new and creative takes on the material. They provide a wealth of classic information and entertainment, as well as an inexpensive way to gather stock material that can be utilized however a person sees fit.

Because copyright laws have changed, when and how something can enter the public domain has changed. It can be difficult to determine if something is truly in the public domain. Generally, these documents are considered to be public domain:

  • some federal documents
  • phone books
  • works with expired copyrights
  • works for which owners have chosen to give up their copyrights (See the Open Access and Creative Commons License guides for more information on this topic) 
  • some open-source documents
  • some clip art
  • works published before 1928
  • some works published between 1928 and 1977

This is just a general guideline. Never assume that a work is public domain unless explicitly stated. Best practice is to verify with the source if there are any copyrights or licensing agreements before attempting to use the work in question.