Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.


What Can Be Copyrighted?

Not everything created can be copyrighted. One important aspect of copyright law throughout history is that ideas and facts cannot be copyrighted.  For example, you may write a book about capitalism. The words you use to express your idea may be copyrighted; however, you cannot own the idea of capitalism. Ideas belong to our culture.

There is a minimal standard of originality that must be met for works to be protected by copyright. For example, if you were to take a picture of the Mona Lisa, it is a replication of the original. You cannot copyright that picture because it adds nothing original. However, if you were to add to the photo by changing the colors or other artistic elements, you might be able to copyright that image. Lists that lack originality, such as the white pages of a phone book, typically cannot be copyrighted because they do not meet the standard of minimal original content.

Also, facts and processes cannot be copyrighted. For example, a recipe for cheesecake with a list of ingredients, and instructions on how to bake the cake is not copyrightable. However, if you were to include stories of the person who created the recipe, or suggestions for ways to serve it, then that content would be copyrightable. 

What is the Public Domain?

A work in the public domain is not protected by copyright. You are free to use the entire work however you choose. The public domain is important to us as a culture. Allowing people to create using other people's ideas and works helps us remain an innovative and progressive society. Many important works are in the public domain. Some include:

  • works published before 1925
  • works where copyright has expired
  • most federal documents
  • facts, titles, ideas, etc.

What is actually in the public domain can be very complicated at times, and it's difficult in some circumstances to find a copyright owner resulting in an orphaned work.  Cornell has an excellent chart that details many other circumstances where things fall under the public domain.

More Information

For those who wish to explore further...

  • The Copyright Genie is a tool created by the American Library Association to help you determine if a work is in the public domain.  
  • Stanford maintains a Copyright Renewal Database. This database covers copyright "renewal records received by the US Copyright Office between 1950 and 1992 for books published in the US between 1923 and 1963. Note that the database includes ONLY US Class A (book) renewals."
  • The University of Pennsylvania provides a copyright renewals list covering renewals between 1950 - 1978 for books published between 1923-1950.
  • Project Gutenberg maintains selected renewal record transcriptions for 1950-1977.
  • In 2008 the University of Michigan University Library (Ann Arbor) was awarded an IMLS grant to create a copyright review management system (CRMS) to increase the reliability of determining copyright status of books published between 1923 and 1963.
  • The Copyright Slider - CC BY-NC-SA Michael Brewer and ALA Office for Information Technology Policy - is a tremendously useful (and fun!) tool for looking up copyright term and public domain possibilities via date and various conditions of publication.
  • Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States - CC by Peter Hirtle, Cornell Copyright Information Center - Incredibly detailed chart of copyright term and public domain considerations and dates.
  • Search Copyright Records at the U.S. Copyright Office