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What is in the public domain?

The rights of the copyright holder (see Question 2) are granted by the Copyright Act for a set period. When that period expires, the work is said to be in the public domain. Once in the public domain, the original creator has neither economic nor moral rights concerning the work.

In some cases, the copyright holder may declare that a work is in the public domain, forfeiting those rights.

In Canada, copyright expires 50 years after the death of the author at the end of the calendar year. For instance, Ernest Hemmingway died on July 2, 1961. Copyright in his work expires on December 31, 2011. In some cases (e.g. material with a corporate author, photographs published before 1948), it expires 50 years after its first publication at the end of the year.

It is important to note that the expiration of copyright on derivative works such as translations or scholarly editions dates from the death of the translator or the editor of the scholarly edition.

Some common misconceptions:

Government publications are in the public domain.

This is true in the U.S. but not in Canada. The Crown in Canada has retained copyright. The federal government has issued a general permission for use of its copyrighted publications in non-commercial contexts unless otherwise stipulated. The provincial government has not issued a parallel permission, so permission to use the works must be sought.

Material on public websites are in the public domain

This is not the case. See the discussion under Question 4.

Newspapers are in the public domain.

This is not true in Canada. See the discussion in Quick Reference Table No. 3.

Photographs of public domain works are in the public domain

This is not necessarily true. The original painting of the Mona Lisa is a public domain work but if a more recent photograph exists, then that photograph is protected by copyright unless the term of copyright protection for the photograph itself has expired.

Material that is out of print is out of copyright.

Commercial availability is not a determinant of copyright, but a work that is out of print may be easier to license through the Copyright Office.


It is your responsibility to avoid infringement under the Copyright Act. Memorial University is not responsible for any acts that infringe copyright.

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