Commons:Copyright rules by territory/United States

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US copyrights for works first published in US, excluding audio works
Year of first publication
Note: publication is not creation
Copyright duration
  • Before 1925
  • During 1925–63: without notice, or with notice but not renewed within 28 years of first publication
  • During 1964–77: without notice
  • From 1978 to March 1, 1989: without notice and without registration within 5 years of first publication
Work has entered US public domain
  • During 1925–63: with notice and renewed
  • During 1964–77: with notice
Copyrighted for 95 years after first publication
  • From 1978 to March 1, 1989: pre-1978 creation with notice, or without notice but registered within 5 years of first publication
  • From March 2, 1989 to 2002: pre-1978 creation
  • If author is known, copyrighted until the later of either 70 years pma or Dec 31, 2047
  • If author is unknown or corporate authorship, the earlier of 95 years after first publication or 120 years after creation, but not earlier than Dec 31, 2047
  • From 1978 to March 1, 1989: post-1977 creation with notice, or without notice but registered within 5 years of first publication
  • From March 2, 1989 to 2002: post-1977 creation
  • Unpublished before 2003 (i.e. first published after 2002)
  • If author is known, copyrighted for 70 years pma
  • If author is unknown or corporate authorship, the earlier of 95 years after first publication or 120 years after creation
pma: post mortem auctoris, or "after the author's death"

This page provides an overview of copyright rules of the United States relevant to uploading works into Wikimedia Commons.

General rules

  • Anything published before January 1, 1925 is in the public domain. For a definition of “publication” see e.g. Copyright Office circular 1: Copyright Basics, page 3.[1] This modern definition is only valid for 1978 and later, as the 1909 Copyright Act did not explicitly define it, though the concepts were similar.
  • Anything published before January 1, 1964 and whose copyright was not renewed is in the public domain (search the Copyright Renewal Database, Stanford University for books).
  • Anything published before January 1, 1978 with no copyright notice ("©", "Copyright" or "Copr.") plus the year of publication (may be omitted in some cases) plus the copyright owner (or pseudonym) is also in the public domain.
  • Anything published in or after 1978 but before March 1, 1989 with no copyright notice is in the public domain unless the work's copyright was registered within 5 years of the work's initial publication.
  • Works which were first published outside the US (and not subsequently republished in the US within 30 days) on or after January 1, 1925 may be copyrighted in the US by virtue of the URAA (Uruguay Round Agreements Act) even if the work's US copyright previously expired due to a failure to comply with US copyright formalities (copyright renewal and inclusion of a copyright notice.)[2] In general, such works had their US copyright restored if the work was out of copyright in the US due to noncompliance with US formalities but still under copyright in its country of origin on the URAA date. (For most countries, the URAA date is January 1, 1996.) Works first published in the US are not affected by the URAA.
  • The US copyright situation for sound recordings (including those published before 1925) is a special case. Recordings fixed on or after February 15, 1972 are subject to the same copyright rules as other works. Under the Music Modernization Act, which was signed into law in October 2018, recordings fixed prior to February 15, 1972 are subject to a copyright term that depends on when the recording was first published.
  • Recordings that were published prior to 1923 will enter the public domain on January 1, 2022. Recordings that were published from 1923 through 1946 are copyrighted for a period of 100 years after first publication. Recordings that were published from 1947 through 1956 are copyrighted for a period of 110 years after first publication. Recordings that were published after 1956 and first fixed prior to February 15, 1972 will enter the public domain on February 15, 2067. These copyright terms for pre-1972 recordings apply regardless of any formalities (copyright notice, registration with the US copyright office, or copyright renewal.)
  • Works created after January 1, 1978 are protected for 70 years after the death of the creator.
  • Works created before 1978 and first published after or in 1978 are protected for the earlier of 95 years from publication or registration for copyright or 120 years from creation (for anonymous or corporate works) or 70 years after death of the creator for known authors; if it was published in 1978–2001, that copyright is extended to December 31, 2047 if it's shorter. (Thus no works first published with permission of the copyright holder between 1978 and 2001 in the US are out of copyright.)

U.S. copyright law applies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, but does not apply in American Samoa. According to the U.S. Copyright Office 17 U.S.C. § 101 (defining use of the term "United States" in the Copyright Act of 1976): "The 'United States', when used in a geographical sense, comprises the several States, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the organized territories under the jurisdiction of the United States Government."[3] Of the organized territories, the United States Copyright Office says that: "U.S. federal copyright law applies in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands but not in American Samoa."[4]

Full details of US Copyright Law (Title 17) are published by the U.S. Copyright Office.[5]

Works by the US Government

A work by the U.S. federal Government is in the public domain. This applies certainly within the United States; it may, however, not apply in other jurisdictions. See the CENDI Copyright FAQ list, 3.1.7, the U.S. Government's own statement to that effect, but also this discussion.

Example of public domain work created by NASA, a U.S. federal government agency
  • Images on government or government agency websites are not necessarily public domain; always look for copyright notices or similar. Especially the images on the favorite website "Astronomy Picture of the Day" are in most cases not within the public domain but copyrighted by their individual authors (so please do not upload images from there to Wikimedia Commons). Images on certain military websites (e.g. AKO) frequently are creations of military members in their individual capacities (e.g. soldiers on patrol using their personal cameras). These images may not be in the public domain, but they are very hard to distinguish from works of military photographers, and they rarely contain copyright information.
  • This does not include governments of the individual states. The work of most state and local governments are subject to copyright, but there are some exceptions.
  • This does not include government-funded corporations like Amtrak
  • This does not include works of employees of the USPS, as exempted in 1976 [1]. In particular, the USPS holds exclusive copyright to all US postage stamp designs since 1978 [2] (older US stamps are all considered public domain).
  • This also does not include works commissioned by the US Government, but produced by contractors; in this case, the copyright may have been assigned to the US Government (for instance, the copyright of the official Ada programming language manual was assigned to the US Department of Defense).
  • Some US government agencies may work in cooperation with other agencies or corporations; this is in particular the case of NASA, which operates the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in cooperation with Caltech, and operates a number of space projects in cooperation with foreign agencies such as ESA and CNES. Only materials solely produced by NASA are in the public domain. The other agencies may hold copyright on some material, including material published on NASA sites (in these cases there will be copyright notices— please look for them to determine copyright status).
  • The government sometimes publishes images with statements about non-copyright restrictions (like the White House photostream). This does not affect copyright.
  • Commercial use of some federal images, such as identifying insignia or identification, is prohibited however. Fraudulent use (such as wearing military decorations without authorization) is also banned. However, restrictions of this nature are not within the scope of Commons policy.
  • The United States Army Institute of Heraldry—the official custodian of such images has addressed this issue with its Copyright statement, which informs the reader as to how to meet any commercial needs under this statute.

Edicts of Government

  • Edicts of government are always public domain in whole or in part and applies to such works whether they are Federal, State, or local as well as to those of foreign governments. This includes judicial opinions, administrative rulings, legislative enactments (laws, statutes), public ordinances, regulations, and similar official legal documents. In this case, the idea (the edict) and its expression (the text of the edict) are inseparable, as to change the legal text would be to change the law itself. Edicts of government may or may not overlap with works by the U.S. Government.

Copyright tags

COM:TAG United States

See also: Commons:Copyright tags

See also #US States and Territories

U.S. Government agencies

  • {{PD-USGov}} – for images created by the U.S. Federal Government that are ineligible for copyright.
Legislative Branch
Department of Agriculture
Department of Commerce
  • {{PD-USGov-DOC}} – for public domain images from the Department of Commerce.
    • {{PD-USGov-DOC-Census}} – public domain files from the U.S. Census Bureau.
    • {{PD-USGov-NIST}} – for public domain images from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
    • {{PD-USGov-NOAA}} – for public domain images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
      • {{PD-NWS}} – for public domain media from the National Weather Service.
    • {{PD-US-patent}} – for public domain images released under U.S. patent regulations.
Department of Defense
Department of Education
  • {{PD-USGov-ED}} – for public domain images from the Department of Education.
Department of Energy
  • {{PD-USGov-DOE}} – for public domain images from the Department of Energy.
    • {{PD-LosAlamos}} – for DOE public domain images from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
    • {{PD-USGov-ARM}} – for public domain images from the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program.
Department of Health and Human Services
Department of Homeland Security
  • {{PD-USGov-DHS}} – for public domain images from the Department of Homeland Security.
    • {{PD-USCG}} – for public domain images from the U.S. Coast Guard.
    • {{PD-USGov-FEMA}} – for public domain images from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • {{PD-USGov-HUD}} – for public domain images from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Department of the Interior
Department of Justice
Department of Labor
Department of State
  • {{PD-USGov-DOS}} – for public domain images from the Department of State.
    • {{PD-USGov-USIA}} – for public domain images from the now-defunct United States Information Agency.
Department of Transportation
  • {{PD-USGov-DOT}} – for public domain images from the Department of Transportation.
    • {{PD-USGov-MUTCD}} – for images taken from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
    • {{PD-USGov-FAA}} – for public domain images from Federal Aviation Administration.
    • {{PD-USGov-NTSB}} – for public domain images from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Department of the Treasury
  • {{PD-USGov-Treasury}} – for public domain images from the Department of the Treasury.
    • {{PD-USGov-money}} – for images of the official currency of the United States that are ineligible for copyright.
Department of Veterans Affairs
  • {{PD-USGov-DVA}} – for public domain images from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Independent agencies

U.S. Library of Congress public domain collections

See also: Commons:Library of Congress

US States and Territories

Work of Organized Territories has less clear status; the first link in this section shows strong evidence that Puerto Rico's works are in the public domain, while the second link prevaricates.



See also: Commons:Currency


Symbol OK.svgOK

Many but not all coins or bills produced by the United States Mint are in the public domain as works of the Federal Government. Some were designed by third parties who assigned rights to the Mint. These are typically commemorative coins for special occasions and the copyright is described in their marketing materials; another example is the obverse of the golden dollar.[4] The status of each coin or bill should be assessed individually.


Symbol OK.svgOK

"Color illustrations" of banknotes appear to be permitted if they respect the following conditions (from 18 U.S. Code § 504 and 31 CFR § 411.1):

  • the illustration is of a size less than three-fourths or more than one and one-half, in linear dimension, of each part of the item illustrated;
  • the illustration is one-sided; and
  • all negatives, plates, positives, digitized storage medium, graphic files, magnetic medium, optical storage devices and any other thing used in the making of the illustration that contain an image of the illustration or any part thereof are destroyed and/or deleted or erased after their final use.

Please use {{PD-USGov-money}} for relevant US currency images.

De minimis

See also: Commons:De minimis

The United States courts interpret the de minimis defence in three distinct ways:

  1. Where a technical violation is so trivial that the law will not impose legal consequences;
  2. Where the extent of copying falls below the threshold of substantial similarity (always a required element of actionable copying); and
  3. In connection with fair use (not relevant here, since Commons does not allow fair use images).

It is the first of these that is often of particular concern on Commons.

Freedom of panorama

See also: Commons:Freedom of panorama

✓OK for buildings only {{FoP-US}}

Buildings are works subject to copyright in the U.S. according to 17 USC 102(a)(8) since the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act was passed in 1990. It applies to all buildings that were completed after December 1, 1990, even if begun before, or where the plans were published after that date.

However, the U.S. federal copyright law explicitly exempts "pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictorial representations" of copyrighted buildings from the copyright of the building in 17 USC 120(a). Anyone may paint, draw, or photograph buildings from public places. This includes such interior public spaces as lobbies, auditoriums, etc. The creator holds the exclusive copyright to such an image (the architect or owner of the building has no say whatsoever), and may publish the image in any way. 17 USC 120 applies only to architectural works, not to other works of visual art, such as statues or sculptures.

This means that for buildings completed before December 1, 1990, there is complete FoP, without regard to whether the building is visible from a public place, because the building is public domain, except for the plans. For photos of such buildings, the license tag {{PD-US-architecture}} can be used (along with a license tag for the photo.) For buildings completed after December 1, 1990, freedom is given only to photograph such a building. This includes style elements such as gargoyles and pillars, which are protected only from three-dimensional reproduction (Leicester v. Warner Bros.).

Note that copyright applies only to "buildings".

"The term building means structures that are habitable by humans and intended to be both permanent and stationary, such as houses and office buildings, and other permanent and stationary structures designed for human occupancy, including but not limited to churches, museums, gazebos, and garden pavilions."

All such works are copyrighted and, therefore, covered by the FOP exemption only if they are visible from a public place.

"Bridges, cloverleafs, dams, highways or walkways are not ‘buildings’ under the definition of architectural works."

In the U.S., such works do not have a copyright and therefore may be photographed freely, whether or not from a public place. They do have copyrights in many other countries.

Originality requirement

This discussion must be considered qualified by the requirement under US law that a work, including a derivative work, must display originality to be protectable under copyright law. See Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co. in the English Wikipedia. More specifically, in the case of derivative works, it has been held, in Durham Industries, Inc. v. Tomy Corp.[8] and earlier in L. Batlin & Son, Inc. v. Snyder.[9] that a derivative work must be original relative to the underlying work on which it is based. Otherwise, it cannot enjoy copyright protection and copying it will not infringe any copyright of the derivative work itself (although copying it may infringe the copyright, if any, of the underlying work on which the derivative work was based). For further discussion of this issue, see the Wikipedia article Derivative work.

For a legal discussion, see Wikilegal/Pictorial Representations Architectural Works.

Artworks and sculptures X mark.svg Not OK.

For artworks, even if permanently installed in public places, the U.S. copyright law has no similar exception, and any publication of an image of a copyrighted artwork thus is subject to the approval of the copyright holder of the artwork. However, public artwork installed before 1925 is considered to be public domain, and can be photographed freely. In addition, any public artwork installed before 1978 without a copyright notice is also in the public domain (unless the copyright owner actively prevented anyone from copying or photographing the work until 1978). In these situations, document the date of installation and the creator (sculptor) of the pictured work as much as possible. (A good resource for finding information about U.S. sculptures is the Smithsonian Art Inventories Catalog.)

Applicable templates:

The line of argument that a large sculpture or memorial is a building and therefore covered by the FOP exemption was specifically rejected in Federal claims court (Gaylord v. The United States, 2008), which noted that the building exemption to the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act (AWCPA) does not extend to "The Column" sculpture in the Korean War Veterans Memorial because "[t]he structures used in the definition of 'building' by the Copyright Office are intended to house individuals; either for the sake of providing shelter or for another purpose such as religious services."[5] While the court ruled in favor of the defendant under a fair use rationale it was later overturned in favor of the plaintiff; the photograph was deemed a derivative work. The court also contended that had Congress intended to extend the AWCPA to monuments and memorials, the law would have been drafted to reflect that in the first place.

For further legal discussion, see Wikilegal/Copyright of Images of Memorials in the US.

For further information, refer to Commons:Public art and copyrights in the US and the following resources:

For foreign works considered under US law: use {{Not-free-US-FOP}}.

Foreign works from countries that have a relevant freedom of panorama may fall under US law for copyright issues within the US. Under the choice-of-law principle lex loci protectionis, U.S. courts might apply U.S. freedom of panorama standards in such cases, rather than the standards of the source country. However, in practice, it is unsettled whether and how this approach would be applied in real-world U.S. legal cases involving freedom of panorama elements.

See {{Not-free-US-FOP}} and Commons:Requests for comment/Non-US Freedom of Panorama under US copyright law. See also: Category:United States FOP cases


See also: Commons:Stamps/Public domain

Before 1978

Public domain use {{PD-USGov}}

Title 17 of the United States Code (source : en:United States Postal Service) :

  • public domain if issued before 31 December 1977
1978 onward


Copyrighted by the United States Postal Service after 1 January 1978 (the date on which the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect).[10] Written permission is needed[11].

Threshold of originality

These images are ✓OK to upload to Commons, because they are below the threshold of originality required for copyright protection.

Despite repeated requests, the U.S. Copyright Office found the Vodafone speechmark (shaded version) ineligible for copyright protection. It can however not be uploaded to Commons because it's a UK logo.

These are X mark.svg Not OK to upload to Commons (unless published under a free license by the copyright holder), because they are above the threshold of originality required for copyright protection.

Copyright formalities

Works published in the United States before certain dates require an increasingly stringent level of compliance with copyright formalities in order to remain copyrighted; otherwise, they fall into the public domain. This section attempts to describe these cases in detail.

Not renewed (before 1964)

In order to conclude that a work is {{PD-US-not-renewed}}, a thorough search of the copyright registry must be performed.

If a work is based on a previously published work which has been renewed, failure to renew copyright in the derivative work would only cause the additional expression present in the derivative work to fall into the public domain, so the derivative work as a whole remains copyrighted. An example is It's a Wonderful Life#Ownership and copyright issues, where the film's copyright failed to be renewed due to a clerical error, but as it was based on a short story called The Greatest Gift which was properly renewed, the film remains copyrighted. For this specific case, it is generally acceptable to upload individual screenshots of the film since their reliance on the story is minimal, but not video of the film.

No notice (before 1978)

In order to conclude that a work is {{PD-US-no notice}}, care must be exercised to ensure that the work truly has no copyright notice. In general, finding an image of a two-dimensional work (which would fall under {{PD-scan}} if the original work is public domain) on the Internet with no notice does not prove that it has no notice, as there could be a notice on the original hard copy, such as on a part of the page cropped out of the scan, on the back side of the page, or on a different page if the work came from a book/pamphlet. For memorabilia such as postcards, auction sites such as eBay can be a good resource to find images of the full item on both sides. For public art installed prior to 1978, the mere act of placing it in public view where people can make copies constitutes publication. For a photo of public art, a combination of the photo itself, other photos on the Internet (which need not be freely licensed, so long as there is no reason to doubt their authenticity), and mapping services like Google Street View can be used to establish the lack of a copyright notice. The Smithsonian Art Catalog is a useful resource for finding information about artworks. See Commons:Public art and copyrights in the US for more details.

The situation can become extremely complicated if a work is distributed via multiple authorized channels, only some of which carry a notice. According to the Copyright Act of 1909, "Where the copyright proprietor has sought to comply with the provisions of this title with respect to notice, the omission by accident or mistake of the prescribed notice from a particular copy or copies shall not invalidate the copyright or prevent recovery for infringement against any person who, after actual notice of the copyright, begins an undertaking to infringe it, but shall prevent the recovery of damages against an innocent infringer who has been misled by the omission of the notice; and in a suit for infringement no permanent injunction shall be had unless the copyright proprietor shall reimburse to the innocent infringer his reasonable outlay innocently incurred if the court, in its discretion, shall so direct."[14] The 1973 Copyright Compendium explains in greater detail:[15]

  1. If the Office is informed that the great bulk at the published copies of a work bore an appropriate notice, but that the notice was accidentally omitted from a very few of the published copies, registration may be made. In such cases, if the deposit copies do not bear the notice, copies with the notice will be requested.
  2. If a considerable number of copies have been pub­lished without notice, registration will be denied.
  3. If the entire first edition of a work was published without notice, registration will be denied even if the first edition consisted of a relatively small number of copies.

As in the renewal case, failure to include a notice on a derivative work does not invalidate the copyright on the original work,[16] so in such a case neither the original nor the derivative can be uploaded to Commons. However, a fully original portion of the derivative work (if possible to isolate, which is not always the case) would be acceptable.

If there is a notice but it fails to comply with certain constraints, it may fall under {{PD-US-defective notice}}. The most basic requirements are given in the text of the copyright tag, but for more details see the 1973 Copyright Compendium.[17]

No notice and unregistered (before March 1989)

In order to conclude that a work is {{PD-US-1978-89}}, the requirements of the previous section must be met, and a thorough search of the copyright registry over the next five years must be performed.

Regarding the specific definition of "no notice", the 1984 Copyright Compendium is similar to the 1973 edition:[18]

Omission of copyright notice. Where the notice is omitted from more than a relatively small number of copies or phonorecords distributed by authority of the copyright owner, and registration is being made within five years of the date of publication without notice, the Copyright Office may warn that the law requires, in addition to registration, that a reasonable effort must be made to add the notice to all copies or phonorecords that are distributed to the public in the United States after the omission has been discovered. See 17 U.S.C. 405(a).

Registration. Registration is not possible for works published without notice or with a fatally deficient notice by authority of the copyright owner, if more than five years have elapsed since such publication. There are, however two exceptions to this general rule: 1) where the notice has been omitted from no more than a relatively small number of copies or phonorecords distributed to the public; or 2) where the notice has been omitted in vio­lation of an express requirement in writing that, as a condition of the copyright owner's authorization of the public distribution of copies or phonorecords, they contain the prescribed copyright notice. In these two instances, there is no need for registration to correct the omission. Registration in these cases may be made at any time during the subsistence of the copyright. See 17 U.S.C. 405(a).


  1. Circular 1: Copyright Basics. US Copyright Office. Retrieved on 2019-03-14.
  2. Hirtle, Peter (2018-11-06). Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. Retrieved on 2018-12-10.
  3. Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17) Chapter 1 Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright 101 Definitions. U.S. Copyright Office. Retrieved on 2019-03-14.
  4. Circular 38a: International Copyright Relations of the United States 14. U.S. Copyright Office. Retrieved on 2019-03-14.
  5. Copyright Law of the United States ( (Title 17)). U.S. Copyright Office. Retrieved on 2019-03-14.
  6. Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, § 1102.08(b)
  7. W:Compendium II: Copyright Office Practices, § 206.02(e)
  8. 630 F.2d 905 (2d Cir, 1980), available at and
  9. 536 F.2d 486 (2d Cir.) (en banc), available at and
  11. USPS site
  12. Omega S.A., v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 541 F.3d 982, 983.
  13. Fishman, Stephen () The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More, Nolo, p. 183 Retrieved on . ISBN: 1413320287.
  14. 17 U.S.C. § 21 (1947).
  15. Copyright Compendium I (1973), 4-5 to 4-6.
  16. 17 U.S.C. § 7 (1947)
  17. Copyright Compendium I (1973), 4-8 to 4-45.
  18. Copyright Compendium II (1984), 1000-13.

External links

Caution: The above description may be inaccurate, incomplete and/or out of date, so must be treated with caution. Before you upload a file to Wikimedia Commons you should ensure it may be used freely. See also: Commons:General disclaimer