Do research papers have a Public Domain Expiration Date? simmilar of what happens to literature books

For example, let's consider a research paper of James C. Maxwell: XVIII.—Experiments on Colour, as perceived by the Eye, with Remarks on Colour-Blindness, it is stored in here: link to www.cambridge.org website

It says: "Copyright © Royal Society of Edinburgh 1857" and if I want to purchase the article, it would cost me: USD35

This is an article published more than 150 years ago. How long do I have to wait in order to download it and use it for free?

  • If you have an academic appointment your library may be able to get you a free copy via interlibrary loan. Feb 20, 2021 at 19:33
  • 5
    @EthanBolker Yes, I know that, but I was wondering what was the case for someone who is not in the university
    – Nau
    Feb 20, 2021 at 19:41
  • 1
    This question about law is off topic. Feb 21, 2021 at 1:03
  • 21
    Not a lawyer, not a legal advice, but yes, all academic works are covered by the same copyright laws as eg literature. However, there is no rule against selling public domain materials for money (you can find plenty on Amazon).
    – Greg
    Feb 21, 2021 at 9:12
  • 3
    You might be interested in the Unpaywall extension - unpaywall.org/products/extension - it will automatically find free, legal, sources of papers for you. Feb 21, 2021 at 17:38

6 Answers 6


From your question:

This is an article published more than 150 years ago. How long do I have to wait in order to download it and use it for free?

From a comment you posted:

Yes, I know I do still have to cite it, but I can't download it or use it for free. I have to pay even when it was published in the 19th century

As Buffy and anpami note, the original work probably isn't under copyright. But even if copyright has expired, there's no guarantee anyone will make it available for free. In particular, there is no obligation on the publisher to provide free (or indeed any) access to it.

In this case, there is a link to a PDF version from the Semantic Scholar page.

  • 3
    And, as near as I can tell, Semantic Scholar respects the rights of authors.
    – Buffy
    Feb 20, 2021 at 20:39
  • 1
    Semantic Scholar obtained this PDF from zenodo.org. Zenodo does not seem to say who uploaded the PDF there, but claims it has a Creative Commons license. The DOI, of course, goes back to Cambridge who wants USD35 for the PDF.
    – user126110
    Feb 22, 2021 at 21:13
  • 1
    @RossPresser Note that it is a CC0 license, which is Creative Commons' tool for releasing things into the public domain.
    – Anyon
    Feb 22, 2021 at 21:24
  • 3
    It shouldn't be CC0: that's for putting something in the public domain; to mark that something already is in the public domain, you can use the public domain mark.
    – TRiG
    Feb 23, 2021 at 9:55
  • 3
    @RossPresser Cambridge arn't "claiming the right" to charge USD35, they are just saying that it is work for us to provide it to you, we don't have to do anything for free, so give us $35 if you want it. If you look at the Penguin Classics range of books, they are all out of copywrite, and the text is generally available free somewhere, but if you want Penguin's physical book copy you have to pay for it. Feb 24, 2021 at 12:04

Well, regardless of the actual copyright situation, you can get it for free even now. Just use the DOI (10.1017/S0080456800032117) and use it at a, erm, (possibly not 100% legal) "Black Open Access" site called Sci-Hub. (The domain changes constantly, but it currently seems to be this one).

As regards a legal response, my guess is the following: Suppose that it is the UK's Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 that is applicable in this case. Section 12 of that act tells us: "Copyright expires at the end of the period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the author dies" when it comes to "literary works" (inter alia). If I remember correctly, there is a low threshold regarding what constitutes an original "literary work", so I would not worry about definitional disputes with reference to that research paper you linked to. As I am sure that the author has already left the earth more than 70 years ago, I would assume that the copyright has already expired. However, I am sure that Law Stackexchange has gathered more knowledge on the legal situation than I have.

  • This latest instantiation of this stack's long-running argument about whether sci-hub and such sites are legal and/or ethical has been moved to chat. Additional debate in the comments will be deleted. Please also remember our code of conduct; we do not allow subtle (or not-so-subtle) put-downs.
    – cag51
    Feb 24, 2021 at 2:34

In the US, at least, nothing published in the 19th century is likely to still be under copyright. See https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-duration.html.

For the UK it is similar but very slightly longer in a few cases. See: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/library/copyright/duration.

Other places will differ, but probably not by a lot and most likely a shorter time under copyright.

But you still need to cite old works, even when they are out of copyright.

Maxwell's work is most likely to have lost copyright protection about 1950 since he died in 1879.

Any academic library should be able to provide a copy of such works, even if it has to borrow them from other libraries. Librarians are very good at finding such things and are generous about sharing them.

  • 3
    Yes, I know I do still have to cite it, but I can't download it or use it for free. I have to pay even when it was published in the 19th century
    – Nau
    Feb 20, 2021 at 19:40
  • 1
    No, you don't need to pay. Ask any academic library, and even a few small, local, ones, to get you access. Even my small village library can get me things, even when under copyright. Even if the library doesn't have a copy itself, it can make an "inter-library loan" request.
    – Buffy
    Feb 20, 2021 at 19:52
  • yes, I know I can do that, but I was thinking in translate it into my native language so that I could improve my english and at the same time study physics. I was thinking that if I do that, maybe it would be nice to post it on a personal website, but since it seems to be still copyrighted, I am not sure if it would be correct to do that
    – Nau
    Feb 20, 2021 at 20:00
  • 2
    No, it seems impossible that the work itself is copyrighted at this point. But if you found it in a book, then that book might, itself, have a separate copyright. But Maxwell's work is almost certainly free to use 140 years after he died.
    – Buffy
    Feb 20, 2021 at 20:03
  • 10
    @Buffy It's a bit ironic to even talk about US copyright in the 19th century (and earlier). The entire business model of the early US publishing industry was based on reprinting non-US works with no regard whatever for foreign copyright. And of course the primary purpose of modern changes to US copyright law is to protect important US cultural icons like Mickey Mouse by successive increases in the duration of copyright.
    – alephzero
    Feb 21, 2021 at 4:45

@Buffy gives good advice on the copyright situation. As far as downloading that particular paper and using it for free goes, you need wait no longer: the Biodiversity Heritage Library has a copy here.

  • @DieDauphin: I simply googled the title and in a few seconds I found it in two places on the first page of hits -- top hit and 5th hit. It's also freely available from a google-books search, at least where I'm at. Feb 21, 2021 at 21:18
  • @DieDauphin: Regarding google-books, for stuff before 1900 or so, I've almost never found that anything I know about to NOT be online. For example, take a look at all the links to freely available papers in this answer --- papers that are way, way more obscure than the one you're looking for. Feb 21, 2021 at 21:25
  • @DaveLRenfro I know that, but I wasn't sure if those sites were "legal", I thought they may be something similar to scihub
    – Nau
    Feb 22, 2021 at 3:15
  • 1
    @DieDauphin It's not whole sites that are "legal" or "illegal", it's particular actions with particular works. Because the copyright in this particular paper has expired, downloading it is legal no matter which site you get it from. Feb 22, 2021 at 12:22

In general there are two issues.

  1. For a number of years, there may be copyright restrictions on what you're allowed to do with the paper or writing, even if you had free open access to a copy of it.
  2. After copyright expires, you can do.pretty much what you like with it - but you may find you can't get hold of a copy of the paper without paying, or other contractual agreement, simply because while copyright doesn't exist on it any more, the specific copy you access may have been provided to you as part of a contractual agreement, or may only be provided to you as part of one.
    (But, if you acquire a copy without entering into a contractual agreement, then there is no way for a third party to legally demand/require that you act any particular way with it, or that you don't copy, modify, use or circulate it)

What that means is for example, if you copied an out of copyright version held by some pay-for-use library, because that's the only copy, they could sue you for breaching their terms of use, but they couldn't re-impose copyright on the material, or on other people.

Its not clear to me if public policy defence would in some times or jurisdictions mean they couldn't keep control or sue for alleged loss due to copying it, because that seems to potentially breach public policy - the entire aim of copyright law which allows financial benefit from control, for a limited number of years, not forever. There's surely case law on that, and from memory there have been cases where this has happened.

  • There is also performance copyright, which applies mainly to music and plays. The original may be out of copyright, and you are welcome to copy and use the original manuscript as you like, but the particular performance and recordings of the performance are protected for a further period. But how that applies in this case, I'm not sure, if at all? perhaps only to collection works that contain significant parts of the original?
    – Gem Taylor
    Feb 23, 2021 at 22:42
  • Not relevant here. That's the copyright in a specific instantiation of a play - I.e. of that particular performance (a new creative work, so to speak), it's not over the script generally.
    – Stilez
    Feb 24, 2021 at 1:15

Arithmetica is an Ancient Greek text on mathematics written by the mathematician Diophantus in the 3rd century AD.

It is out of copyright but why should you get it for free? Either someone has to print it (they have to make a physical copy, and make a profit in order to stay in business), or they have to maintain a website that make such texts available. They are not obliged to let people access their website for free - why should they be?

Just because you can legally copy something without infringing copyright law, doesn't mean you can force the legal owner to hand it over.


Suppose my great, great, great ... grandfather was Charles Dickens. I have inherited an unpublished novel of his. I am not required to publish it. I can keep it in my private collection and never show it to anyone. It is not public property - it is my property. However, If I was reading it in public and someone photographed the pages as I turned them, they would not breach copyright laws.

  • "why should you get it for free?" <- because once a couple of people have gotten it in file form, some of them will certainly make it accessible for free on the Internet, and then it will be free forever. Free is the - nearly inevitable - default.
    – einpoklum
    Feb 23, 2021 at 22:24
  • @einpoklum - That doesn't address the question by the OP. There is something that they are unable to find online and they are asking how to get hold of a copy without paying USD35. Feb 23, 2021 at 22:35
  • Indeed, my comment doesn't address OP's question - hence a comment on your answer, not an answer... I'm just explaining why OP should get the paper for free.
    – einpoklum
    Feb 23, 2021 at 22:37
  • @einpoklum - Okay, that's fair enough. It is the word "should" that I'm talking about. There a difference IRL between what someone should be able to do and what they actually are able to do. Feb 23, 2021 at 22:40
  • If you replace "should you" with "would you be able to", I'll un-downvote.
    – einpoklum
    Feb 23, 2021 at 22:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .