Public Domain is an example of certain intellectual works which are NOT protected by copyright. For example, older classic books published before 1923 in the United States, such as the traditional story Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, are usually in the public domain. Public domain legally belongs to the public and may be used by anyone for free. This does not mean that the Disney film Snow White (1937) or other new creative expressions of Snow White are in the public domain. Remember, only most works published before 1923 are in the public domain. Other exceptions include U.S. government materials such as government documents. Common facts such as names listed in a telephone book or ingredients in a recipe found in a cookbook may not be copyrighted. However, the formatting or expression of common facts could be copyrighted. There are other intellectual works that may require a patent or trademark which we also cover at this site.

So when do most published works fall into the public domain? Virtually all U.S. works published before 1923 are public domain. Since the copyright law before 1976 required a copyright notice for copyright, any work published between 1923 through 1977 without a copyright notice is most likely in the public domain. See our guide on Researching & Tracing Copyright Renewal Records to help determine when other works have fallen into the public domain.

See the Cornell University Copyright Terms and the Public Domain @ for a chart which helps to sort out the details. It reveals that the works which were published with copyright notice between 1923 through 1963, but were never renewed, are also public domain. See also Peter Hirtle's When Is 1923 Going to Arrive and Other Complications of the U.S. Public Domain in the September 2012 issue of Searcher with more details. 
Open source, Creative Commons, and orphaned works, are other alternatives to traditional copyright covered on this site. 
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