Public domain refers to the realm of works that are no longer subject to Copyright Laws based on their date of publication or those works for which copyright was never claimed. Works which have entered into the public domain may be used freely by anyone for any purpose, without obtaining permission or remitting royalty fees.

The duration of copyright has been amended several times since its inception. Currently, the term of copyright is life of the author plus 70 years. The term of copyright for works created by corporate entities or anonymous and pseudonymous works is 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever comes first.

The table below illustrates the timeline for works to enter into the public domain.

Published Works
Time of Publication in the U.S. Conditions Public Domain Status
Before 1923  None In public domain.
Between 1923 and 1978  Published without a copyright notice In public domain.
Between 1978 and 1 March 1989  Published without a notice and without subsequent registration In public domain.
Between 1978 and 1 March 1989 

 

Published without a notice but with subsequent registration 70 years after death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.
Between 1923 and 1963  Published with notice but copyright was not renewed In public domain.
Between 1923 and 1963  Published with notice but copyright was renewed 95 years after publication date.
Between 1964 and 1978 

 

Published with notice 70 years after death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.
Between 1978 and 1 March 1989 

 

Published with notice 70 years after death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.
After 1 March 1989  None 70 years after death of author, or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation.

 

Unpublished Works
Type of Work Copyright Term What Became Public Domain on 1 January 2003 in the U.S.
Unpublished works Life of the author + 70 years Works from authors who died before 1933.
Unpublished anonymous and pseudonymous works, and works made for hire (corporate authorship) 120 years from date of creation Works created before 1883.
Unpublished works created before 1978 that are published before 1 January 2003  Life of the author + 70 years or 31 December 2047, whichever is greater Nothing. The soonest the publications can enter the public domain is 1 January 2048.
Unpublished works created before 1978 that are published after 31 December 2002  Life of the author + 70 years Works of authors who died before 1933.
Unpublished works when the death date of the author is not known  120 years from date of creation Works created before 1883.

Tables in Russell, Carrie Complete Copyright an Everyday Guide for Librarians. Chicago: American Library Association, 2004 (10, 14)