Public Domain

Copyright does not last forever. The main purpose of copyright law is to allow creators of works to be rewarded for their creative efforts. Statutory rules were put in place to determine when copyright protection of a work comes to an end. 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 (e.g. the "Life plus 50" rule). Therefore, protection will expire on December 31 of the 50th year after the author dies, at which time the work enters the public domain.  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 and attribution is no longer necessary.

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.

Most provincial and municipal government publications are not in the public domain and you must seek permission to reproduce these materials. 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.

Publicly available work (e.g. on the Internet or in a library) is not the same as a public domain work. Most content on the Internet, or in books and journals, is not in the public domain. For any public domain work that has been re-published with new content, that new version is copyrighted but the original work would remain in the public domain.

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.

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.
Some types of works (e.g. sound recordings, some photographs and films) may have a different term of copyright protection. It is recommended not to assume that a work is in the public domain (e.g. artwork) and also note that the term of copyright protection may be a different length in another country. For example, in the U.S. a work will enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the creator.

Project Gutenberg is an example of an excellent electronic resource for literary works in the public domain. To find other materials and resources, add the words “public domain” to your Internet search query.

If you have any questions about copyright and the public domain, or if you would like to schedule an information session for you and your colleagues, please contact the Copyright Office.


Note: The information obtained from or through this site does not constitute legal advice, but is provided as guidelines for using works for educational purposes.

Creative Commons License
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