Public Domain

What is the Public Domain?

Copyright protection does not last forever. Regardless of where a work was created, the general rule in Canada is that copyright lasts for the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author dies and for 50 years following the end of that calendar year. This statutory rule is known as the "life plus 50" rule. Copyright protection will expire on December 31 of the 50th year after the author dies, at which time the work enters the Public Domain. For example, if a work was created on April 30, 1976 and the author dies on July 27, 1989, the copyright protection extends from April 30, 1976 to December 31, 2039, at which point it would enter the Public Domain. If the work was created by more than one person, copyright protection exists for the life of the creator who dies last, the remainder of the calendar year in which that person dies, plus 50 additional years. Once a work has become part of the Public Domain, it is no longer protected by copyright and can be copied, modified and distributed without permission.

Publicly available works, such as those available on the Internet, are not the same as Public Domain works. Most content on the Internet or in journals and books, is not in the Public Domain. For any Public Domain work that has been republished with new content, the new version is copyrighted but the original work would remain in the Public Domain. For example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet in its original form remains in the Public Domain, but copyright for the version of Hamlet published by Penguin is held by that corporation. Numerous publishers may hold copyright for their versions of Hamlet, but none holds copyright to Hamlet itself.

Works can also be in Public Domain because the work was either not eligible for copyright protection in the first place or the copyright owner has chosen to completely release the work from copyright protection. This can be done by stating on the work that it may be copied or reproduced without permission or payment of royalties.

Unknown or Multiple Creators/Authors

If the work was created by more than one person, copyright protection exists for the life of the creator who dies last, the remainder of the calendar year in which that person dies, plus 50 additional years. Both economic rights and moral rights also continue to exist for the same period of time.

If the identity of the author is unknown, copyright consists of whichever is the earliest: the remainder of the calendar year of the first publication of the work plus 50 years; or the remainder of the calendar year of the making of the work plus 75 years.

Photographs

Amendments to the Copyright Act in November 2012 changed the timing when certain photographs enter into the Public Domain. Photographs taken in 1948 or before are in the Public Domain. Any photographs taken after November 7, 2012 are subject to the “life plus 50” rule, meaning that the photograph is copyright protected until 50 years after the death of the photographer.

If the photograph was taken between January 1, 1949 and November 7, 2012, the following rules apply:

  1. If the initial photograph, photo plate or negative was owned by an individual (as opposed to a corporation), then the “life plus 50” rule applies.
  2. If the initial photograph, photo plate or negative was owned by a corporation and taken before 1962, the photograph is in the Public Domain.
  3. If the initial photograph, photo plate or negative was owned by a corporation and taken between January 1, 1962 and November 7, 2012, the individual who created the photograph must be identified and the “life plus 50” rule applies for the life of the creator.

Government Works

Most provincial and municipal government publications are not in the Public Domain. For government publications created for (or published by) the Crown, copyright in these works lasts for the remainder of the calendar year in which the work was first published, plus an additional 50 years.

Posthumous Works

Posthumous works are works that were not published, performed or delivered in public during the lifetime of the author. If the work was created after July 25, 1997, the term of copyright protection is the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author died and for 50 years following. If the work was created before July 25, 1997, it could fall into one of three categories:

  1. The work of a deceased author that is published, performed or delivered prior to July 25, 1997, retains copyright from the date of first publication or performance plus 50 years.
  2. The unpublished work of an author who died between July 25, 1947 and July 24, 1997, retains copyright until December 31, 2047.
  3. The unpublished work of an author who died before July 25, 1947 is now Public Domain.

Exceptions

Some specific types of works (e.g., sound recordings) may have a different length of copyright protection. It is recommended not to assume that a work is in the Public Domain and also note that the term of copyright protection may be a different length in another country. For example, in the United States, a work will enter the Public Domain 70 years after the creator’s death.

Resources

Canadian Public Domain Flowchart

For help determining if a particular work is in the public domain, see the Canadian public domain flowchart, prepared by the Copyright Office at the University of Alberta. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY 4.0 license.

UBC’s Scholarly Communications and Copyright Office’s page on the Public Domain.

This work is adapted from the “What is Public Domain” by University of Saskatchewan Copyright website, used under CC BY-NC-SA. “What is the Public Domain” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.