Copyright and Public Domain

Copyright ensures the copyright holder the exclusive ability to copy and distribute a creative work. One unfortunate impact of copyright laws is that academic materials are often not available to those who desire access to them. Accordingly, my interest here is to make materials as widely available as possible within legal constraints. That boils down to figuring out what materials are public domain, i.e., beyond copyright protection and thus able to be reproduced and distributed at will. 

There are many detailed discussions of copyright and public domain elsewhere, but below are a few basic guidelines. Copyright law differs from country to country, and I offer my understanding of what is in the public domain accordingly.

Works Published in the United States

Basic guidelines for works published in the United States of America---

  • Anything published before 1923 is public domain. Share it freely.
  • Works published before 1977 without proper notice, i.e., ©, are public domain.
  • Books published 1923-1963 with © notice may or may not be public domain. Two major categories:
    • If the copyright was not renewed after 28 years, then they are public domain.
    • If the copyright was renewed, then they are still protected. How do you know? Practically speaking, most books published 1923-1963 are public domain, but you can check a near complete list of renewed copyrights available here and a few other searchable indexes are given here and other methods of proceeding are outlined here. If the copyright has not been renewed, share the work freely.
  • Works published after 1963 are almost certainly copyrighted until at least 2019.

For a handy table on U.S. copyright that offers more details than I do above, see here.

Works Published Outside of the United States

This gets tricky. In general, works published before 1923 are public domain, and those published after 1923 are likely protected. For more details see here.

For India, the rule of thumb is that works are copyrighted until 60 years after the author's death or publication date, whichever comes last.

Manuscripts and Primary Texts


  • No premodern or early modern manuscripts are or can be copyrighted anywhere in the world.

Photographs or Copies of Manuscripts

  • US and UK: Photographs of non-copyrighted manuscripts--both text and illustrations therein--aimed at accurately reproducing the manuscript are not copyrighted. Note that this is often a point of confusion among scholars and libraries alike. Even if an archive claims that such images are copyrighted, they are incorrect. This issue has been addressed directly in this court case.
  • India: To my knowledge, the issue has not been directly addressed yet, but India would likely follow the precedents set in the US and UK as their copyright laws are similar.

Primary Texts

  • Primary texts written before the 20th century cannot be copyrighted anywhere in the world. However, more recent editions of pre-20th century texts that exhibit substantial creative work can be copyrighted. The key question is what constitutes "creative work."
    • For example, if I publish an edition of the Akbarnamah, a late 16th century Persian text, the following portions would be protected by copyright: introduction, critical notes, and any translation. The text itself, as I print it, may or may not be copyrighted. If I simply reproduce the text, say by copying a single manuscript, then the text remains public domain. However, if I provide value-added content, such as compiling several manuscripts to make a critical edition, then my edition would be copyright protected (although the base text remains public domain).
  • Determining the line between reproducing and substantial editing (i.e., public domain or newly copyrighted) can be difficult, but see some guidelines here.

How to Share Works That are Still Copyrighted

If you want to distribute a work still protected under copyright, you need to get the permission of the holder of that copyright.

If you want to distribute your own work, you still need the permission of the holder of the copyright, which may not be you (the author) depending on the contract you signed. Going forward, I urge all academics: read your contracts and, if needed, amend them. Keep in mind that journals in particular often formulate their guidelines for distributing work with the sciences in mind, whereas the humanities often involve very different circumstances. Remember, you can always try to negotiate the terms of a contract.

Outside Links

All links to outside websites presume that those website are in compliance with copyright laws.