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A guide to finding, using, and citing works in the public domain.
Last Updated: Nov 6, 2014 URL: http://dal.ca.libguides.com/publicdomain Print Guide RSS Updates

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Introduction

This guide is designed to help you find and use materials in the public domain.  It should not be considered legal advice in any way.  It is your responsibility to observe all applicable copyright legislation. 

 

What is the Public Domain?

The public domain is comprised of all creative works not covered by copyright.  Generally a work enters the public domain in one of three ways:

  • When copyright expires
  • When the work is so old it was created before copyright protection existed
  • When the copyright owner chooses to put a work in the public domain.

Public domain works can be copied, used, or modified in any way without asking for permission.

Source: Access Copyright

 

How Long do Copyrights Last?

General rule

The general rule is that copyright lasts for the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author dies, and for 50 years following the end of that calendar year. Therefore, protection will expire on December 31 of the 50th year after the author dies. After that, the work becomes part of the public domain and anyone can use it.

Some exceptions to the general rule are discussed below. Note that these exceptions are not all encompassing, and any issues where clarification of ownership is required should be resolved with the help of legal professionals.

Works listed under "Other Subject Matter"

  • Performer's performances: copyright lasts for 50 years after the end of the calendar year in which the performance is first fixed or, if it is not fixed, 50 years after it is performed.
  • Sound recordings: copyright lasts for 50 years after the end of the calendar year of the first fixation of the sound recording.
  • Communication signals: copyright lasts for 50 years after the end of the calendar year in which the signal was broadcast.

Works of Crown copyright

These government publications are created for (or published by) the Crown. Copyright in these works lasts for the remainder of the calendar year in which the work was first published, and for 50 years after that. Copyright is perpetual until the work is published.

Joint authorship

In the case of a work that has more than one author, the term will be the date the last author dies plus 50 years following the end of that calendar year.

Unknown author

In the case of a work where the identity of the author is unknown, copyright consists of whichever is the earlier of:

  1. the remainder of the calendar year of the first publication of the work plus 50 years; or
  2. the remainder of the calendar year of the making of the work plus 75 years.

Posthumous works

These are works that have not been published, performed or delivered in public during the lifetime of the author.

If the work was created after July 25, 1997, the term of copyright protection is the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author died, and for 50 years following.

If the work was created before July 25, 1997, three different scenarios can exist:

  1. The work of a deceased author that is published, performed or delivered prior to July 25, 1997, will retain copyright from the date of publication, plus 50 years, to the end of that calendar year.
  2. The unpublished work of an author who was deceased during the 50 years prior to July 25, 1997, retains copyright until December 31, 1997 (the remainder of the calendar year in which Bill C-32 came into force), plus 50 years following the end of that calendar year.
  3. The unpublished work of an author who deceased more than 50 years prior to July 25, 1997, retains copyright until December 31, 1997 (the remainder of the calendar year in which Bill C-32 came into force), plus five years following the end of that calendar year.

Source: Canadian Intellectual Property Office - A Guide to Copyrights

 

Can I Copy a Work in the Public Domain?

Works that are determined to be in the public domain can be copied, used, or modified in any way without asking for permission.  This does not mean you can quote from the work without providing a proper citation!  All the rules about plagarism and academic integrity still apply to works in the public domain.  Visit the Academic Integrity Office for more information. 

Some collections in the holdings of the Dalhousie Libraries are subject to use/reproduction restrictions, which may apply to material protected by copyright or in the public domain. Some restrictions require that you obtain written permission to reproduce the material and/or obtain copies.  Please remember to check with Library staff if you are uncertain about the status of a particular work.

Contacts at Dalhousie

  • Academic Integrity at Dalhousie
    A website to promote academic integrity among students and faculty. It contains lots of information on current policies and resources available to students and faculty.
  • Dalhousie Copyright Office
    The website of Dalhousie's Copyright Office. Contains information about copyright, fair dealing, online learning and teaching, and other copyright-related issues.
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