The public domain is a collection of creative works that are not protected by intellectual property laws, such as copyright , trademark, or patent laws. This means that anyone can use, reproduce, distribute, or modify these works without obtaining permission from the original copyright holder.
There are many different ways that a work can enter the public domain. Some works are automatically in the public domain because they are not eligible for copyright protection. For example, works of the United States federal government are in the public domain based on Title 17, Section 105 of the United States Copyright Law. 1
Other works enter the public domain when their copyright expires. The copyright term for works created in the United States is currently 70 years after the death of the author. Public Domain Day is celebrated every January 1 as many movies, books, music, and other creative works enter the public domain in the US. There are also some works that are in the public domain because the copyright holder has explicitly waived their rights. This can happen if the copyright holder donates the work to the public domain.
The public domain is a valuable resource for creators and innovators. It allows anyone to use and build upon existing works, which can lead to new and creative expressions. The public domain also helps to ensure that everyone has access to knowledge and culture.
Copyright law is not universal and varies depending on the laws of a particular country but there are some international agreements that cover intellectual property law for more uniform agreements between countries. For example according to Creative Commons more than 179 countries have signed the significant Berne Convention, that sets default rules and minimum standards for how long copyrights last for creative works. The Berne Convention’s minimum standard of 50 years after the death of the author is less than the 70 year standard of the United States. 2
Even if a copyrighted work is not in the public domain, its use to create new work may fall under fair use
Public Domain Mistakes
Works that are not in the public domain are often incorrectly labeled as being in the public domain and vise versa. It is important to double check any material when working with content you believe to be in the public domain. It is best to only use content from reputable public domain collections. If you are unsure whether a work is in the public domain, you can consult a copyright lawyer or do a search online. There are many websites that list works that are in the public domain.
A funny example of copyrighted material being mislabeled as public domain happened when a photo of BJ Novak, and actor from the TV show The Office, showed up in advertisements and product packaging in multiple countries. After learning about the mistake he did not pursue legal action and laughed off the incident Under different circumstances the companies and designers who did not verify the source of the images they were using could have been required to pay large monetary compensation to the copyright holder as well as suffering damage to their professional reputation. 3 4
Public Domain Collections
The resources below have collections of public domain, images, videos and sounds and offer them for use free of charge. They are also relatively reputable sources so you can be sure that the resources are actually in the public domain, unlike some random websites that claim to have public domain images without providing reliable means of verifying their claims. It is not uncommon to find copyrighted images and content falsely listed on less reputable “public domain” collections.
Government Public Domain Collections
- Library of Congress Moving Image Research Center
- Library of Congress Pictures
- National Archives The Archives has a searchable online catalog
- NASA Image and Video Library
- NASA on the Commons - Flickr
- Hubble Space Telescope Imagery
- Webb Space Telescope Images
- National Park Service B-Roll Footage
- Smithsonian Open Access
Museum Public Domain Collections
- National Gallery of Art
- Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access
- British Library
Archives and Internet Collections
- Prelinger Archive
- Internet Archive Be careful with the internet archive and always confirm something is in the public domain before using.
- Space X Public Domain Images
New York Public Library Digital Collections
The New York Public Library Digital Collections has a searchable database of imagery that is in the public domain. It has a visual interface as well as a text-based search. Images are often available to be downloaded at multiple resolutions, including very high resolution scans in TIF format.
Smithsonian Open Access
- Copyright Law in the United States
- Creative Commons Certificate for Educators, Academic Librarians and GLAM
- Public Domain Day 2023 - Duke Law School