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What is the public domain?

Works in the public domain are all works that are not covered by copyright. These works belongs to the public and there are no restrictions on their use. It most often applies to works on which copyright has expired. In Canada, the term of copyright is, in most instances, for the life of the creator plus 50 years (ending on January 1 of the year following the 50-year period). After that, works enter the public domain.

Copyright law is national. Works may be in the public domain in Canada, but not in other countries. In the late 1990s, the term of copyright coverage in the US and most of Europe was revised to life of the author plus 70 years. If a work is copied or used in Canada, the 50-year rule applies. Keep this in mind when using US and European sources that claim ownership over works that are free to use in Canada. If a work is to be used outside of Canada, the laws of the location it will be used apply.

Original editorial, annotative or translation work added to a public domain work may have its own copyright and could affect your ability to use it without permission. 

The law regarding the jurisdiction over websites whose content may be accessed in multiple countries is not settled. This means that you should exercise caution in posting public domain works to publicly accessible websites when they can be accessed in countries where the works have not yet entered the public domain.  

Authors may waive all or part of their copyrights. When an author has waived all rights, the work is in the public domain. When part rights have been waived (such as with a Creative Commons licence) the work may be used within the terms of the licence without having to seek permission.

The Canadian Public Domain Flowchart provides a guide to help determine if a work is in the public domain in Canada.

Exceptions to the “50 Year” Public Domain Rule

There are exceptions to the "life plus 50" rule for works by joint authors or unknown authors, unexploited works/posthumous works, government/Crown works, photographs, cinematographic works such as films and videos, sound recordings, performer's performances and communication signals.   

 

a. Joint authors

  • A work enters the public domain 50 years after the last author dies.

 

b. Unknown authors

  • A work enters the public domain 50 years after it was first published OR 75 years after the work was created - whichever is earlier.

 

c. Unexploited works/Posthumous works

  • If a creator dies with an unexploited (unpublished) work, the work enters the public domain 50 years after the creator dies.

  • If the work was created before 1997, there are three possibilities:
    1. If the creator dies, and the work is published prior to 1997, the work enters the public domain 50 years after the work was first published.
    2. If the creator dies during the period of 50 years before 1997 and the work has not been published by 1997, the work enters the public domain in 2047. 
    3. If the creator died more than 50 years before 1997 and the work had not been published by 1997, the work is already in the public domain.

 

d. Government/Crown works

  • The work enters the public domain 50 years after it was first published.
  • An unpublished government/Crown work retains copyright in perpetuity.
  • Federal laws, decisions, and reasons for decisions of federal courts and administrative tribunals are immediately in the public domain.  The copy must be accurate and must not be represented as the official version.
  • Please Note: The Government of Canada has declared that works under its copyright may be freely used for non-commercial purposes.

 

e. Photographs

  • Any photograph taken before 1948 is in the public domain.
  • The creator of a photograph is the one who owned the negative or original photograph at the time it was made.
  • If the creator of the photograph is a natural person, the photograph enters the public domain 50 years after the creator's death.
  • For a photograph taken after 1949, and before November 7, 2012, that entered the public domain before that date following these provisions:
    1. If the creator of the photograph is a corporation in which the majority of voting shares are owned by the creator of the photograph (for example, a commissioned photograph), the work enters the public domain 50 years after the creator dies.
    2. If the creator of the photograph is a corporation in which the majority of voting shares are not owned by the creator of the photograph (for example, a commissioned photograph), the work enters the public domain 50 years after the making of the initial negative or plate from which the photograph was derived or, if there is no negative or plate, the remainder of the initial photograph.
  • For a photograph that is not in the public domain by November 7, 2012:  
  1. The photograph will go into the public domain 50 years after the death of the photographer.
  2. Photographs that entered the public domain before the above date will remain in the public domain.

 

f. Certain cinematographic works (films or videos, including home videos)

  • A cinematographic work which does not have an original arrangement, acting form or combination (such as a home video), and is published within 50 years of its making enters the public domain 50 years after the date of publication.
  • A cinematographic work which does not have an original arrangement, acting form or combination (such as a home video), and is not published within 50 years of its making enters the public domain 50 years after the date of its making.
  • Films and videos which have an original arrangement, acting form or combination enter the public domain 50 years after the death of the creator.
  • The rules for determining when a cinematographic work enters the public domain are complicated and depend on when the work was created (before or after 1994) and if the work has an original arrangement or not.  See the National Archives of Canada's chart published in Staff Guide to Copyright (1999) for specific details.

 

g. Sound recordings

  • In June 2015, the Canadian term of copyright for sound recordings was extended from 50 years from when the recording was first fixed (or made) to 70 years from the date of first publication. A sound recording now enters the public domain 70 years after the recording is first published.
  • An unpublished sound recording continues to have a 50 year copyright term. If the sound recording is published before the end of that 50 years, the copyright term would be the shorter of 70 years from first publication or 100 years from first fixation. 
  • Sound recordings that were in the public domain under the 50 year rule before June 23, 2015 remain in the public domain. 
  • Music from the public domain can be recorded freely; the resultant recording would be copyrighted for 50 years. 
  • While a sound recording may be in the public domain, the music itself (the rights for the composer, lyricist and music publisher) may not be in the public domain if the composer has not been deceased for 50 years.

 

h. Performer's performances

  • A performer's performance enters the public domain 50 years after the performance is first fixed or, if it is not fixed, 50 years after it is performed.

 

i. Communication signals

  • A communication signal enters the public domain 50 years after the signal was broadcast.

 

Other Things to Look For

Sometimes a copyrighted work has a "blanket permission" statement that allows the free use of the work without the need to get permission.  Look inside a book or on the home page of a website for a section called Copyright, Permissions, Terms and Conditions, Legal Notices, About Us, etc. to see if such a statement exists.

To find a work in the public domain or a work that can be used without paying royalties, search the Internet by the type of work you are interested in (for example, search for "public domain films").  Also, check the terms under which web content can be used by looking on a website's home page under Copyright, Permissions, Terms and Conditions, Legal Notices, About Us, etc. for restrictions before copying, modifying, adapting, distributing or using content. 

 

Parts of this section were adapted from the University of Manitoba copyright website under a Creative Commons licence.

 
This work is subject to a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 International license. For exceptions, see the Library Copyright Statement.