The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.
To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.
L. Gassaway's chart helps sort through the rules.
A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone.
Works fall into the public domain for three main reasons:
1. the term of copyright for the work has expired;
2. the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright; or
3. the work is a work of the U.S. Government.
Most works enter the public domain because of old age, although a number of other variables can come into play.