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Open Access

What is meant by Public Domain ?

Public Domain in Canada


"A work in the public domain is free for everyone to use without permission or paying royalities. The phrase 'public domain' is a copyright term referring to works that belong to the public.

Works can be in the public domain for a variety of reasons: because the term of copyright protection has expired; because the work was not eligible for copyright in the first place; or because the copyright owner has given the copyright in the work to the public. "

Source: Wanda Noel Copyright Guide for Canadian Libraries. Canadian Library Association 1999, p.15.

Term of Copyright in Canadian Law:

Section 6 of the Copyright Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-42) : "The term for which copyright shall subsist, shall, except as otherwise expressively provided by this Act, be the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author dies, and a period of fifty years following the end of that calendar year."

Copyright law is national in application, i.e. limited to the nation that enacts it. It is important to note that Canadian citizens follow the Copyright Act of Canada, no matter the national origin of the material.


 Works Not Eligible for Copyright Protection:


  • Titles, names, slogans, short word combinations. To be protected a work must be something substantial. 
  • Ideas. An idea needs to be expressed in a fixed form on paper or electronically before it can be protected.
  • Facts. Only the expression of facts, not the facts themselves, are protected by Copyright.
  • Expired Copyright. Works that have entered the Public Domain are no longer copyright protected. (see above)

It is important to note that material on the Internet is not public domain just because it is online and available to the public. Even though it's easy to find and copy, the material on the Internet is equally protected under copyright, or usage terms and conditions. Always read the terms of use on Internet sites.

Remember: Public domain exists when copyright expires. This means public domain is defined through copyright law in Canada and elsewhere. Laws may differ according to country so it's important to check whether the material you are using is public domain.

In Canada, materials are typically in the public domain (copyright expires) 50 years after the death of the creator. As of June 2016 Parliament is reviewing a private member's bill - Bill C-299 An Act to Amend the Copyright Act (term of copyright) which seeks to extend the copyright on musical works to 70 years after the death of the creator. It has received first reading in the House of Commons. 

UBC's Walter Koerner Library maintains a very thorough guide to Public Domain.

Public Domain Day Throughout the World

January 1st we celebrate Public Domain Day when another group of authors' works enter the public domain where anyone may use, republish, translate, transform or copy them into digital archives.

William Faulkner died 1962

For Canada , a " life + 50 years"  country, we are able to celebrate the public domain status of works by authors like William Faulkner who died in 1962.

In the United Kingdom and most other countries of the European Union, Public Domain Day celebrates works by authors who died in 1942. These are countries which are party to the European Union Copyright Duration Directive (1993) which retroactively required them to extend their copyright terms from the Berne Convention's "life + 50 years" to "life + 70 years" and by doing so put 20 years' worth of public domain works back into copyright.

In the United States currently, most (but not all) works published before 1923 are now in the public domain. No authors' published works entered the public domain in 2013 and none will enter until January 1, 2019.  Why ? In 1998 the United States extended copyright protection by 20 years from 75 to 95 years under the so-called Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Works published from 1923 now have a 95 year term. 

Source of images:

Van Vechten C. (1954). William Faulkner, December 1954. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Carl Van Vechten Collection. [image]. Retrieved from

Sonny Bono. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives. [image]. (n.d.) Retrieved February 12, 2013 from

Video: Public Domain 101

Pond5. (2015, January 20). Public domain 101 [Video file]. Retrieved July 2, 2016 from