Today on January 1st, we celebrate Public Domain Day—the day each year where works enter the public domain for many countries around the world following the expiration of their term of copyright protection.
Public domain works are works free of copyright restrictions; works capable of being freely reproduced, shared, and built upon by users. As we have discussed on this blog before, a robust public domain supports the underlying purpose of U.S. copyright law to promote the progress of knowledge and learning.
But while many counties will see new works added to the public domain this year, there will be no published works entering the public domain in the United States. In fact, no published works will be added to the public domain in the United States until 2019.
Why the delay? The U.S. Constitution states that copyright protections may exist only for “limited times,” but our copyright law has been amended several times to extend the length of the term of protection. Under our first federal copyright statute, copyright protection lasted for an initial term of 14 years, renewable for another 14 years. The current term of protection for copyrighted works is the lifetime of the author plus an additional 70 years. As a result of this extension of copyright and Congress’s decision to apply the extension of copyright protection retroactively to existing works, works published in the United States from 1923 to 1977 will remain protected for 95 years after their date of publication. This means that works we would normally expect to enter the public domain today (i.e., published works whose author died in 1946) will not enter the public domain until much later.
For more information on Public Domain Day and works entering the public domain in other countries this year, visit:
- The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/
- Public Domain Review Class of 2017: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/class-of-2017/
- Also see Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States (updated January 3, 2016) from Peter Hirtle (Cornell Copyright Information Center).
By Maria Scheid, Rights Management Specialist at the Copyright Resources Center, The Ohio State University Libraries
 For this reason, authors today may chose to dedicate their work to the public domain through means such as the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedicator (CC0) tool rather than wait for the term of copyright protection to expire.