The public domain

The public domain is comprised of all the works that are free of copyright (or other IP) restrictions. Anyone can copy, share, adapt, perform, modify, and otherwise use public domain materials without asking or paying a rightsholder. Works in the public domain belong to the public, and provide a crucial well of shared knowledge, inspiration, and raw material for new works of all kinds.

In a way the public domain was reborn in 2019, as published works shed their copyrights for the first time since copyright terms were last extended, in 1998. All works first published in the US in 1923 rose into the public domain on January 1, 2019, and each year for the next half-century or so the public domain will be replenished with another year’s worth of published material—1924 in 2020, 1925 in 2021, etc. (Things will shift again around 2073, for reasons too complicated to explain here!)

At any rate, here you’ll find information about how to find collections of public domain works at UVA and beyond, how to tell if a work is in the public domain, and how the Library can help you work with public domain materials.

Get help working with the public domain

The rebirth of the public domain presents campuses like ours with a wide variety of opportunities to engage with newly freed works, both for research and for teaching. Once a work enters the public domain, anyone may:

  • Copy and distribute the work to the public
  • Perform and display the work publicly (including online)
  • Create new adaptations of the work, like annotated editions, scholarly editions, abridgements, translations, sequels, interactive editions, and adaptations to new media (from novel to movie, movie to musical, short story to video game, etc.).

You can do these things for any reason or no reason, whether commercial or educational. Any number of research and teaching projects might be developed that could take advantage of these new rights to use existing works.

Major digital collections like the HathiTrust Digital Library, the Internet Archive, and Google Books, as well as research libraries with their own digital collections, release public domain works for free online to the public, making digital raw material easy to obtain. The UVA Library is digitizing select materials from our collections, as well, for release to the public as soon as they shed their copyrights.

If you have ideas for projects using these works, the Library can support you in a variety of ways:

  • Help identifying whether a particular work will be entering the public domain in coming years–review our public domain resources and email Brandon Butler if you have additional questions.
  • Digitization for works that aren’t already in large collections like HathiTrust and the Internet Archive—Digital Production Group Request Form. Please note on the form that your request is for public domain material that can be freely published online—that will help us route it properly, and ensure the scans become part of our public digital collections!
  • Consultation and mentorship around a variety of digital tools and platforms that can be used in connection with public domain material, via ScholarsLab. Contact

Finding the public domain

Works enter the public domain in a few key ways:

  • most commonly, their term of protection expires
  • less commonly, if they fail to comply with certain formalities
  • they are authored by the federal government

If you’d like to know whether a particular work is in the public domain, it will be helpful to know, for starters:

  • whether it was published, and if so, when;
  • for unpublished works and works made after 1977, who was the author, have they died, and if so, when; and
  • in what country was the work first published?

Once you gather that basic information, you can head over to our Determining Copyright Status page for some helpful resources for finding whether any particular work is in the public domain, or if not, when it can be expected to shed its copyrights. For a deeper dive, you can check out the Copyright Status Databases page for sites that let you search key records for specific works.

The web contains a panoply of additional information on the public domain, as do any number of books. Be careful as you explore, however. Most importantly, watch out for books that treat 1923 as a significant year—starting in 2019, that year is no longer significant. “Published more than 95 years ago” has replaced “published prior to 1923” as the useful rule of thumb for judging whether an older work is in the public domain.