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Figuring out whether a work is in public domain can be quite complex as different countries have different rules and there are often a lot of (relatively) complex exceptions. There must however be a cut off point before which you can be sure beyond any reasonably doubt that the work is in public domain. Which year would this be? Or put differently: What is the oldest work which is not yet in the public domain?

And just for the record, I am aware that this might be a bit of a complex question, but it seems to be quite a reasonable question, especially if you would wish to use the work for some product that you wish to distribute internationally (e.g. this question made me think of it). Now, I do realize that other issues can come up (trademarks, later editions and moral rights for example), but to keep the question reasonable just ignore those (though as an aside they are fine).

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See World Copyright Terms.

If this is an accurate reflection of current laws and if those laws have not changed, then the country with the longest terms is Mexico at Life + 100 years; it's a reasonable assumption that most authors don't live more than 80 years after first publication so anything before 1835 is probably fine.

But, the laws in Mexico have changed and works whose authors died in or before 1952 are in the public domain.

This demonstrates why it is impossible to give a general answer applicable to all works. A definitive answer can only be determined by:

  1. Identifying the work
  2. Determining the originating country or countries; online publication in particular will create more than one.
  3. For each of those, determine the law in force at the time of publication and the copyright duration that results
  4. For each of those, determine if changes to the law have affected the copyright duration
  5. Find out when the author died
  6. Determine copyright status

This is a non-trivial endeavour.

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    Your conclusion regarding Mexico is incorrect. Mexico is now at life+100 but only since 1982, and the change was not retroactive. A work whose author died before 1952 is now in the public domain (see Wikimedia Commons). – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Aug 8 '15 at 18:36
  • @Gilles Absolutely true, but the 100 years + 80 years seems to be quite a wise judgement. I took a look around later whether I could find any authors that published at a very young age between 1800 and 1850, and considering the youngest I found was 21 and he still died before his sixties it seems like both the 80 and 100 years might even be an overestimation. So all considered 1835 sounds pretty reasonable. – David Mulder Sep 3 '15 at 10:46

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