If I can find no evidence that a writer or artist left an estate, and their work was published over 100 years ago, is it safe to assume it is public domain and therefor, free to use?

Specifically I'm trying to find out if a poem by Wilfred Owen, an Englishman who died 1918 in France, is available to use in a book intended for public sale in America. The poem was published in 1918. So far I can't find any evidence that his family or an estate holds the copyright to his works. His wikipedia article mentioned:

In 1975 Mrs. Harold Owen, Wilfred's sister-in-law, donated all of the manuscripts, photographs and letters which her late husband had owned to the University of Oxford's English Faculty Library.

If the poem was a part of those manuscripts, does it now belong to Oxford even though it was already published?

2 Answers 2


Copyright still exists even if you don't know who owns it

In this particular case, however, the copyright has expired - UK copyright lasts for 70 years after the last author passes away. For a death in 1918, copyright expired on 31 December 1998.

For other cases where the author was still alive in 1940 (for this year - 2020) but has since passed, the copyright belongs to their heirs and assignees. It's possible that you don't know who that is. It's even possible that they don't know that they own it. Doesn't matter, it's still copyright protected and those people (whoever they are) can enforce their rights if they want to.

When you think that everything everyone ever writes, records, photographs, paints, draws etc. will have copyright for 70 years after their death and that most of that stuff has little to no value, is usually not explicitly dealt with in a will, and their heirs will generally not think to deal with it or pass it on in their will it's no wonder the world is full of orphan works.

Some copyright legislation deals with this; the UK's does. You can pay the government for a 7-year licence for orphan works. If the right's holder ever comes forward, they get the fees collected.

  • 2
    The fee is £20 for the first work, £4 for the next work, and £2 for each work after that if you apply for multiple works. That's why they ask for evidence that you did a reasonable search for the copyright holder.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 15:33

Under UK copyright law, copyright in the work published within the lifetime of that author has expired, since the duration of copyright is at most life + 70. The manuscript would, by your report, be the property of Oxford, but the contents of the manuscript are not protected by copyright law.

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