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Copyright Information: Public Domain

What is the Public Domain?

Public domain refers to works in which copyright has either expired (usually 50 years after the creator's death)(but not always - see below) or where the copyright owner has clearly specified that the work may be used without his or her explicit permission.

Public domain works are no longer protected by copyright, and you are free to use them in any way you choose.  That means no restrictions on copying and adapting, no need to seek permission, and no uncertainty about your rights as a user.  There is also no legal requirement to attribute works in the Public Domain to their creators, although doing so is an important part of maintaining academic integrity.

 

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Editions, Arrangements, Translations & Adaptations

Copyright comes into effect as soon as a work is expressed in a fixed form (e.g. paper, film, or digital media).  If a work subsequently undergoes significant alterations, however, then the result may be considered a new work with a separate terms of copyright an different copyright ownership. Copyright protection may therefore still apply to more recent editions, arrangements or adaptations of works in the public domain since copyright on public domain material is created when new content (footnotes, critiques, etc.) is added to the original material. It is only the creator's original work which is in the public domain. 

Example #1: ‚ÄčFor example, while the works of Mozart are now in the public domain, a distinct and unique arrangement of one of his works by a contemporary musician would not be. The musician would have copyright over this distinct arrangement.

Example #2: The works of William Faulkner are now in the public domain. However, a publisher would have copyright protection in the distinct way they arranged a particular novel when a specific edition was published: the fonts they chose to use, the size of the margins etc.

Example #3: Shakespeare's plays - although copyright in his plays expired long ago, many of the published editions of his plays contain added original materials (such as annotations, translations, footnotes, prefaces etc.) that are protected by copyright because the authors have used skill and judgment in creating the new material.  This creates a new copyright in the additional original works, but not in the underlying text of the original work.

Example #4: The painting of the Mona Lisa is in the Public Domain, but a photograph depicting the painting can count as a different work with a separate term of copyright if the photograph has sufficient originality.  If that photograph is subsequently published in a book, moreover, then the published version of the photograph has yet another term of copyright (namely, that of the book in which it was published).

This means that often, while a particular work may be in the public domain, specific publications of the work may still be under copyright protection. There are collections of public domain material on the Internet which strip away the protected elements and make available only the original work (click here for more Copyright-Friendly Resources).

For this reason, it is always important to ask (1) which expression (e.g. version or edition) of a work you are using and (2) when was that expression published or created. The answers to these questions are essential to determining whether or not the work is actually in the Public Domain.

When using works from public websites and other online resources, it is also important to check whether there is a "Terms of Use" agreement or other legal notice governing how the works can be used. For more information on this, please see the section below on "Public Domain on the Web".

 

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Public Domain and Expiry of Copyright

A work typically enters the Public Domain when its term of copyright expires.  Determining whether or not a work is in the Public Domain can be complicated, however, as the term of copyright often differs depending on a work's authorship, format, date of publication, and country of origin.

This guide will show you how to determine if a work is in the Public Domain in Canada, how to evaluate works that originated in other countries, and how to avoid common mistakes concerning adaptations, translations, and scholarly editions.

Moreover, this guide contains detailed information about the duration of copyright works in different formats, as well as an annotated list of Public Domain resources where you can search for works in the Public Domain.

Country of Origin

What are the terms of Public Domain?

Canada

Follow Canadian Law

Berne Convention Country

If item would be in the Public Domain if created in Canada, then consider it to be Public Domain in Canada

None of the above

Contact the MRU Copyright Advisor at MRUcopyright@mtroyal.ca for assistance

Important note: This guide provides general information about the Public Domain in Canada.  If you need to determine whether a copyrighted work is in the Public Domain in a different jurisdiction, as might be the case when submitting a manuscript containing third-party copyrighted materials to an international publisher, please seek guidance from a lawyer.

 

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Public Domain in Canada

In Canada, the copyright for a work usually expires 50 years after the death of the creator, at the end of the relevant calendar year.

E.g. Since Mordecai Richler died on 3 July 2001, his novels will remain copyrighted until 31 December 2051, and will pass into the Public Domain on 1 January 2052.

Determining whether a work is in the Public Domain can be complicated, however, as the duration of copyright differs depending on a work's authorship and format.  The tables below contain detailed information about these differences, and are designed to help you determine whether the copyright for a work has expired.

The first table covers differences related to authorship, and the subsequent tables cover differences related to specific formats, including literary/dramatic/musical/artistic works, images, cinematographic works (e.g. film and video), and government publications.

 

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1. Authorship

(A) Known Single Author

If the author is still living: Not in Public Domain

If the author is now deceased: Is the work published?

(a) If no: Enters Public Domain 50 years after the death of the author.

(b) If yes: Was the author living at date of publication?

→ If yes: Enters Public Domain 50 years after the death of author.

→ If no: Was work published before December 31, 1998?

If yes: Enters Public Domain 50 years after date of publication.

If no: When did the author die?

- Before December 31, 1948: Enters Public Domain on January 1, 2004.

- Between December 31, 1948 and December 31, 1998, inclusive: Enters Public Domain on January 1, 2004.

- After December 31, 1998: Enters Public Domain 50 years after death of author

(B) Known Multiple Authors

If any of the authors are still living: Not in Public Domain.

If all of the authors are deceased:

Is the work published?

(a) If no: Enters Public Domain 50 years after the death of last surviving author.

(b) If yes: Was the author living at date of publication?

→ If yes: Enters Public Domain 50 years after the death of last surviving author.

→ If no (i.e. a Posthumous Work): Was work published before December 31, 1998?

If yes: Enters Public Domain 50 years after date of publication.

If no: When did the last surviving author die?

- Before December 31, 1948: Enters Public Domain on January 1, 2004.

- Between December 31, 1948 and December 31, 1998, inclusive: Enters Public Domain on January 1, 2004.

- After December 31, 1998: Enters Public Domain 50 years after death of last surviving author.

(C) Pseudonymous/Anonymous Author(s)

If author(s) are unknown, then the work will enter the Public Domain at whichever is earlier:

- Year of publication + 50 years; or

- Year of creation + 75 years.

But, if one or more authors becomes known before the earlier of publication + 50 years / creation +75 years, then the work enters the Public Domain at death of the known author who dies last + 50 years.

(D) Work created for hire, i.e. in the course of employment

In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the person who employed the author is first owner of copyright. However, the determination of whether a work is in the Public Domain still determined in reference to the life of the individual author.

- If the employer is corporation, organization or a municipality, see section (E) below.

- If the employer is an individual (a human being) or individuals, please see Section (A) or (B) above, as appropriate.

Note, if the work which was made in the course of employment is "an article or other contribution to a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical", then “there shall, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, be deemed to be reserved to the author a right to restrain the publication of the work, otherwise than as part of a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical." (Copyright Act, section 13(3))

(E) Documents belonging to corporations, organizations, municipalities

If the corporation, organization, or municipality that published the document knows who authored the document, then follow guidelines for Known Authors (Sections (A) or (B), as applicable).

If the corporation, organization, or municipality that published the document does not know who authored the document, then follow the guidelines for Pseudonymous/Anonymous Authors (Section (C), above)

 

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2. Literary, dramatic or musical work, or engravings

(A) Published/publicly performed/communicated to the public before (last) creator's death

Single Known Author/Creator: Enters the Public Domain 50 years after death of creator.

Multiple Authors/Creators (i.e. joint authorship): 50 years after the death of the last surviving creator/author.

(B) Never published/publicly performed /communicated to the public at time of (last) creator's death

Was the work created on or after December 31st, 1998?

(a) If yes: Enters Public Domain 50 years after the death of (last surviving) author/creator.

(b) If no: Was the work published/performed/communicated publicly prior to December 31st, 1998?

→ If yes: Enters Public Domain 50 years after date of publication.

→ If no: When did the (last surviving) author/creator die?

- Before December 31, 1948: Enters Public Domain on January 1, 2004.

- Between December 31, 1948 and December 31, 1998, inclusive: Enters Public Domain on January 1, 2004.

- After December 31, 1998: Enters Public Domain 50 years after the death of (last surviving) author.

 

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3. Images

a) Photographs (physical prints, not versions published in other media like books, online, etc.)

Under the Copyright Modernization Act, the determination of whether a work is in the Public Domain is determined in reference to the life of the individual author (i.e. photographer).  Prior to November 7, 2012, the term of copyright in photographs was dependent on whether the "owner" of the initial negative or plate (or, where there was no initial negative or plate, the initial photograph) was an individual or a corporation.

(A) Photographs taken on or after November 7, 2012

Enters Public Domain 50 years after the death of (last surviving) author; see and apply Sections 1(A)-(D), as appropriate.

Note that the rules concerning Posthumous Works do not apply to photographs.

Note, if the work which was made in the course of employment is "an article or other contribution to a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical", then “there shall, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, be deemed to be reserved to the author a right to restrain the publication of the work, otherwise than as part of a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical." (Copyright Act, section 13(3))

(B) Photographs taken before November 7, 2012

Photographs taken before 1949 are in the Public Domain.

For photographs taken in or after 1949, was the owner of the initial negative/plate/photograph an individual or a corporation?

(a) Individual: Enters Public Domain 50 years after death of (last surviving) creator.

(b) Corporation: Was the creator of the photograph the majority shareholder of the owner corporation?

→ If yes: Enters Public Domain 50 years after death of (last surviving) creator (an individual).

→ If no: Was the photograph taken in or after 1962?

- Yes: Enters Public Domain 50 years after death of (last surviving) creator (an individual).

- No: Entered Public Domain 50 years after creation (i.e. now in the Public Domain).

Note that the rules concerning Posthumous Works do not apply to photographs.

Note, if the work which was made in the course of employment is "an article or other contribution to a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical", then “there shall, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, be deemed to be reserved to the author a right to restrain the publication of the work, otherwise than as part of a newspaper, magazine or similar periodical." (Copyright Act, section 13(3))

 

b) Photographs and Illustrations in books

Copyright ownership of photograph/illustration is stated in the book

Enters Public Domain 50 years after death of (last surviving) author of photograph/illustration.

Copyright ownership of photograph/illustration is not stated in the book

Enters Public Domain 50 years after death of the author of the book.

 

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4. Cinematographic works or a compilation of cinematographic work

Determination of whether a cinematographic work or a compilation of cinematographic works depends on whether or not the work was published prior to December 31st of the 50th year following the work's creation.  If a work was not published before December 31st of the 50th year following its creation, then it is considered "unpublished".

Published (i.e. published prior to December 31st of the 50th year following its creation)

Enters Public Domain 50 years following the date of publication.

Unpublished (i.e. not published prior to December 31st of the 50th year following its creation)

Enters the Public Domain 50 years following the date of creation.

 

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5. Government Publications

Source

Published

Unpublished

Federal government publications are protected by Crown Copyright

Enters Public Domain 50 years after publication.

Does not fall into Public Domain

Provincial government publications are protected by Crown Copyright

Enters Public Domain 50 years after publication.

Does not fall into Public Domain

Municipal government publications are not covered by Crown Copyright. Instead, works created by employees of a municipality are the same as any other work created by an employee for an employer (this can include departmental memos, policy documents, artwork, manuals, guidelines etc.). The municipality owns the copyright.

For information about determining authorship of municipal publications, see Section 1(E), above.

For information about determining authorship of municipal publications, see Section 1(E), above.

 

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Public Domain on the Web

Many websites provide access to digital reproductions of works that are int he Public Domain.  For instance, the websites of museums and art galleries often include online collections of images, and many of these images depict manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, and other creative works that are in the Public Domain.  

Although the act of digitizing a Public Domain work is not itself sufficient to create a new, copyrighted version of the original work, it is important to exercise caution when using such digital reproductions, as they are often made available subject to terms and conditions in legally enforceable license agreements.

More specifically, if a website's terms of use specifically restrict the way in which you can use the website's content, then these restrictions would prevail over your right to use that content in accordance with the Copyright Act.  For example, if a museum's website includes an image of a painting that is in the Public Domain, but the website's terms of use prohibit you from copying or distributing the image, then you must abide by this restriction.

This is also true of license agreements for electronic resources accessed through MRU Library: although ARTstor includes thousands of images of works that are in the Public Domain, the ARTstor license agreement governs how these images can be used.

For a list of copyright-friendly resources (which include public domain resources), check the Image Resources, Journals & Books, Music & Video Resources, and Sheet Music Resources sections of this guide (under "Finding Copyright Friendly Resources").

 

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Public Domain Resources

Wikipedia has a lengthy list of public domain material on their Wikipedia: Public Domain Resources page, conveniently organized by subject area. You can also click on the following links for a list of copyright-friendly resources, which include items from the public domain:

 

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Attribution

Content on this page has been copied and adapted from the "Copyright at UBC" website, created by the University of British Columbia under a CC BY 4.0 International License.

Have a copyright question?

If, after browsing this guide, you still have questions or require additional information please contact MRUcopyright@mtroyal.ca, or 403.440.6618.

The Copyright Advisor is also available in EL1132 for drop-in office hours:

  • Tues: 9:00 - 10:30 am
  • Thurs: 2:30 - 4:00 pm