Copyright Corner: What is public domain?

by Roxanne MacMillan on 2022-05-30T08:50:00-03:00 in Copyright, Copyright Corner, Publishing | 0 Comments
Public Domain Mark 1.0

In the 2022 federal budget, the Government of Canada (2022, Annex 3) announced that the length of copyright protection—currently life of the author plus 50 years—will be extended to life plus 70 years.

This extension was a condition of the 2018 Canada-United States-Mexico trade agreement. It will bring Canada’s copyright term in line with that of many of its major trading partners, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.

This means that, for the next 20 years, no new works will enter the public domain in Canada because their copyright has expired.

What is public domain?

Works that are in the public domain are not protected by copyright and can be reused, shared, copied, or adapted without permission. They belong to the public.

Public domain is determined by the laws of the country where the resource is used, not where it was published. A work may be in the public domain in one country but not in another. For example, A. A. Milne’s 1926 Winnie the Pooh stories entered the public domain in the United States in January 2022. These stories have been in the public domain in Canada since 2007 (Vermes, 2022).

It is important to understand that new editions or adaptations of works in the public domain may be protected by copyright if they have been changed enough to be considered a separate work (University of British Columbia, n.d.).

In Canada, works can enter the public domain if:

  • Copyright has expired. The rule of 50 (soon to be 70) calendar years after the death of the last surviving author applies to most works, but there are some differences depending on the format of a work, who created it, and the date of publication. You can read more on the University of British Columbia’s guide to Public Domain.
  • The author has waived their copyright. Authors can choose to place their work in the public domain, allowing the work to be used freely and without permission. One way they can do this is to assign a CC0 dedication through Creative Commons.

Some materials do not qualify for copyright protection. These include materials lacking in originality or creativity such as data or facts. Ideas are not covered by copyright until they are expressed in a tangible format. For example, an idea for a research project is not covered by copyright, but a written research proposal is.

Public domain does not mean:

  • Publicly accessible. Just because you are able to copy and paste an image found on the Internet or photocopy a large portion of a textbook you borrowed from a library doesn’t mean that you are permitted to do so. Always assume that works are copyright protected! Look for terms of use for materials found online and be prepared to ask for permission.
  • Royalty-free. This type of copyright license means that a user makes a one-time payment to use a resource, such as a stock photo, multiple times, without paying royalties each time the resource is used. It doesn't mean that materials are free to use.

Why is public domain important?

In a response to the proposed copyright term extension, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations and the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (2021) stated that “[a] broad and deep public domain enriches Canadians’ social, political, intellectual, cultural, and artistic lives” (p.3).

Public domain can support:

  • Education, opening up opportunities for digitization of older works and making them freely available online for classroom (and other) use (Center for the Study of the Public Domain, 2021).
  • Creativity, allowing public domain works to be remixed, reimagined, or performed (Center for the Study of the Public Domain, 2021).
  • Preservation, allowing Canadian libraries and archives to digitize and provide access to orphan works (where the copyright owner can’t be located) or works that are no longer commercially viable but are of significance to Canadian heritage and culture (Canadian Federation of Library Association & Canadian Association of Research Libraries, 2021).

Where can I find public domain resources?

For more suggestions, see Wikipedia’s list of public domain resources, including some specific to medicine. Visit our Copyright subject guide for information on finding copyright-free images.

If you have questions about public domain or other copyright topics, get in touch at copyright@nshealth.ca or book a one-on-one consultation. Select Copyright from the list of options.


1. Canadian Federation of Library Associations & Canadian Association of Research Libraries. (2021). Joint response to consultation on copyright term extension. https://www.carl-abrc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/CFLA-CARL_Joint_Response_to_Consultation_on_Copyright_Term_Extension.pdf.

2. Center for the Study of the Public Domain. (2021). Why the public domain matters. Duke University. https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2021/why/.

3. Copyrightlaws.com. (2021) Duration of copyright in Canada. https://www.copyrightlaws.com/duration-of-copyright-in-canada/.

4. Government of Canada. (2022). Budget 2022. https://budget.gc.ca/2022/report-rapport/toc-tdm-en.html.

5. Vermes, J. (2022, January 10). How Winnie-the-Pooh highlights flaws in U.S. copyright law – and what that could mean for Canada. CBC Radio. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/trump-supporters-prep-for-2024-bye-bye-blackberry-don-t-look-up-why-we-procrastinate-joygerm-day-and-more-1.6307339/how-winnie-the-pooh-highlights-flaws-in-u-s-copyright-law-and-what-that-could-mean-for-canada-1.6309960

Roxanne MacMillan

Librarian Educator
Library Services, Central Zone

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