What is public domain?
Works of creative expression—such as films, writings, patents for inventions, and images—are considered to be in the public domain when no one (creator or company) holds exclusive intellectual property rights. Put more simply, no copyright applies these works, so you are free to use them however you like!
In the United States, copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression,” but in some cases this protection expires. Also, copyright doesn’t protect everything! Ideas, short phrases, and facts, for example, aren’t copyrightable. In the U.S., the copyright law broadly states that copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author or 95 years from date of publication, if it’s a corporate or anonymous author, or in all cases, 120 years from the date of creation; whichever comes first.
In other cases where something is in the public domain, the creator might have waived their intellectual rights and released a work into the public domain, or the work was created before copyright laws were put into place (for example, music written by Mozart). Copyright laws work differently in every country, but for the U.S., you can look at the Copyright.gov FAQ for more information.
If there is an image or sound you want to use, look for an indication that it’s in the public domain. Even if you don’t see a copyright logo (that © you see at the bottom of websites), look for any mention of licenses or permission attached: these mean someone still retains some rights to the work, and there are specific terms you have to agree to in order to use them! A common set of licenses that still let you use a work, with some limits, are Creative Commons licenses and GNU General Public Licenses. Other works require permission from the rights-holder to use them. This usually involves asking for written permission, and many companies/authors have email addresses you should contact for this purpose.
So, now that you know a little bit about what it means for something to be in the public domain, where do you access these works? Here is a short list to help you get started.
- Internet Archive (also found on PLYMC’s Digital Resources page) connects users with free books, films, software, and more! Many of these works are public domain, but you can also sign up for a free account to access borrowable items that are still under copyright.
- The Library of Congress (LOC), a link to which can also be found on PLYMC’s Digital Resources page. The LOC’s Digital Collections have many items with no known copyright restrictions (indicated under an item’s “Rights Advisory”). The LOC also maintains Read.gov, a useful resource for all ages that also provides public domain books.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a vast online collection of Open Access art. Browse thousands of classic works!
- Project Gutenberg is a repository containing thousands of free ebooks of works whose copyrights have expired.
- Wikimedia Commons has tons of public domain images and videos which you can search or browse by category. If a work isn’t in the public domain, it generally is licensed under Creative Commons or GNU.