The phrase “public domain” refers to works that have effectively become public property and are no longer protected by copyright law. This occurs when the copyright in a work of art expires.

This factsheet covers the following:

How works in the public domain can be used

Works in the public domain can be used without seeking anyone’s permission and without incurring a copyright fee. 

When works enter the public domain

Generally speaking, artworks fall out of copyright and enter the public domain in the UK 70 years after the death of the artist.

There are a few exceptions:
  • Sound recordings, films, broadcasts and cable programmes are protected for 50 years from the date of making or the date of release if the release occurs within 50 years of it being made
  • Engravings and photographs taken on or after 1 June 1957 that remained unpublished on 1 August 1989 are protected until 2039, even if that is longer than the life of the artist plus 70 years. There’s more information on older unpublished works here
  • Artworks that are made in an industrial process and marketed in sufficient numbers may only be protected for a shorter period of 25 years
  • Copyright in typographical arrangements of a published edition lasts for 25 years from the end of the year in which the edition was first published.

How an artwork is reproduced might itself be copyrighted

There is a very important thing to be aware of: while the artwork might be in the public domain, the medium by which it is reproduced might not. For example, a transparency of an artwork in the public domain loaned out by a gallery or picture library is a photographic work that might still be protected by copyright. Similarly, taking a still from a film which reproduces a work in the public domain may infringe the copyright of the film itself.

Differences in international law

Another thing to be aware of is the variation in copyright law around the world. A longer copyright term in one country might mean that that an artwork is still protected, despite being considered in the public domain in another.

Though you can be sure works by Leonardo da Vinci or JMW Turner are safe to use, we advise checking any works created in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century.

Disclaimer: This factsheet is offered as a general guide to the issues surrounding copyright in this area. It does not represent an exhaustive account. It is not intended to offer legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. We strongly recommend you seek specialist advice for any specific circumstances.