Artists, academics, and students often want quick access to images and other forms of media for use in projects, and anyone online may want an image to include on social media or in a blog post. Normally, you’d need to worry about copyright restrictions and licensing fees when re-using images or media, but some content falls under the public domain. According to Stanford University Libraries, public domain is defined as “creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist.” Works can fall into the public domain for a number of reasons: because the copyright has expired (in the US, works published before 1923 or if the copyright owner fails to renew the copyright), if the copyright owner purposely dedicates the work to the public domain, or if copyright law doesn’t cover that type of work.
How can you quickly find these works in the public domain, though?
Some major libraries have created portals to publicize their public domain digital collections, and these portals can be a helpful way to quickly find interesting images and media that can be freely shared and re-used without copyright restrictions.
- Library of Congress (LOC): The LOC recently announced the creation of a Free to Use and Reuse page, which “features themed sets of content (such as travel posters, presidential portraits, Civil War drawings) that are all free to use and reuse.”
- New York Public Library (NYPL): The NYPL Digital Collections website offers a Public Domain Picks page, highlighting collections of digitized works in the public domain like “William Blake: Illuminated Books” and “Pictorial Descriptions of Broadway.” In January 2016, NYPL Labs also announced that out-of-copyright materials in the digital collections were available as high-resolution downloads, and the NYPL Digital Collections website now featured “prominent download links and filters highlighting restriction-free content.”
- British Library: Back in December 2013, the British Library announced the release of over one million digitized images from 17th, 18th, and 19th century books on its Flickr page, all available as public domain works.
If you want to learn more about finding public domain works, check the following guides from university libraries:
- Finding Public Domain & Creative Commons Media from Harvard Law School Library
- Creative Commons, Open Content, and Public Domain Images from UCLA Libraries
- Find Public Domain and Openly Licensed Materials from Ohio State University Libraries