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Copyright & Permissions (non-classroom use)

This guide is provided for information to promote compliance with copyright laws and practices for non-classroom use. It is not intended as legal advice.

Public Domain

"The Internet is publicly accessible not public domain.

Copyright still applies."

 public domain cartoon


Image Credit: Bound By Law © 2006 by Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins. The comic is distributed under
a Creative Commons license for free and you are welcome (and encouraged) to read, download, share, remix and
translate the book here:‚Äč

Is It in the Public Domain

Using Works in the Public Domain

When a work becomes available for use without permission from a copyright owner, it is said to be "in the public domain." Most works enter the public domain because their copyrights have expired.

Ask the following questions to determine if a work is available for you to use without getting permission.

Has the Copyright Expired?

Apply the following rules to see if the copyright has expired:

  • Copyrights of all works published in the United States before 1923 have expired; the works are in the public domain.
  • Works published after 1922, but before 1978, are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. If the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.
  • For works published after 1977, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.
  • If the work was published between 1923 and 1963, you must check with the U.S. Copyright Office to see whether the copyright was properly renewed.  

Has the Copyright Been Renewed?

Conduct a renewal search - The renewal records for works published from 1950 to the present are available online at Contact the Copyright Office for more information.

Was the Work Produced by a U.S. Government Employee?

Any work created by a U.S. government employee or officer is in the public domain provided that the work is created in that person's official capacity. This rule does not apply to works created by state and local government employees.

Did the Copyright Owner Donate it to the Public?

If, upon viewing a work, you see words such as "this work is dedicated to the public domain and may be reproduced without authorization," then it is free for you to use. That's because sometimes an author deliberately chooses not to protect a work and dedicates the work to the public.

You should assume that every work is protected by copyright unless you can establish that it is not.

Visual Arts & Maps

This selective list contains links that can provide you with access to art collections (original art objects that may be in the public domain) as well as art reproductions that could be in the public domain.  While it can be fairly easy to locate actual works of art in the public domain, reproductions of public domain art works may not be in the public domain.  As always, please verify the copyright status of whatever material you'd like to use for your project. 

Locating Original art works (Sculpture, drawing, painting, photography, etc.):
This list will help you to locate galleries, museums, or other collections that could contain public domain original art works.  Visiting web sites of art museums and galleries can be very helpful to locating the actual public domain art object you seek. 

"Free Art Resources on the Web" Art Libraries Society of North America

This resource contains links to trusted art-related web sites used by art librarians. 

Some canned Google searches that may prove helpful:

1. Art museums and galleries under the domain .org

2. Art museums and galleries under the domain .edu

Locating Art reproductions, photographs, other images in the Public Domain:
This list will help lead you to public domain art reproductions, photos, and other images.  Again, it's important to remember that even though an art object might be in the public domain, its reproduction may not be.  Here are a couple of resources to consult which further explain this potential problem area when using reproductions of public domain visual works.

"Finding Images" Art LibGuide (Mansfield Library)

Some of these links may take you to public domain image reproductions.

"Finding and Using Public Domain Photographs" Public Domain Sherpa

Use these sites to help you search for images created by the U.S. Government.

Flickr: Public Domain

This is a newer group pool for Flickr where contributors are dedicating their images to the public domain.  There are also other groups in Flickr that do similar things about a more specific topic.  If you have images that you'd like to dedicate to the public domain, you can also join the group.  As always, be sure to verify the copyright status before using any of these images. 


Sites selected for this list were included because the majority of the links provide access to public domain map content.

"Maps Library Guide" by Jennie Burroughs and Donna McCrea of the Mansfield Library

Contains maps by topic: historic, scientific, topographic, Montana maps, etc.  Ones created by U.S. Government Agencies by U.S. Government employees are in the public domain.  You need to verify the copyright status of other maps you find by using this guide. 

Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection-- University of Texas Online

Includes maps from all over the world.  According to their frequently asked questions many of their maps are in the public domain.  The ones that are not are clearly marked as being protected under copyright law. 

"Sources of Public Domain Maps" Public Domain Sherpa

Another recommended link from the Public Domain Sherpa site.  Site provides many more links to sites where you can access public domain maps.

Public Domain Resources


Public domain: Many images in databases and on Web sites from U.S. government agencies are in the public domain and are thus free of any copyright restrictions. Check the "Terms of Use" on each website.

Creative Commons - The Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that increases sharing and improves collaboration.

Project Gutenberg - Project Gutenberg, the first producer of free electronic books (ebooks).

National Archives - The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation's record keeper.

Internet Archive - A digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form that provides free access to researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public.

Potential Problems


Q: I found this (image, song, text) I'd like to use on the Internet.  It's freely available there, does it mean it's in the public domain?

A: No.  Just because a work is freely available to view, read, or listen to on the web does NOT mean it is in the public domain.  You need to verify the copyright status of the work on the Internet.

Q: What other kinds of laws or restrictions might there be on my use of a public domain work?

A: There are other laws or restrictions that you need to keep in mind before using a public domain work. 

  • Right of publicity and privacy:  If you plan on using a public domain photo or portrait of someone to sell a product, you will need to make sure that you are not violating that person's publicity rights.  For further information, you can also consult the Public Domain Sherpa's page on this topic.
  • Trademark law:  If you plan on using a public domain work to sell something, you may want to double-check to see if the work is covered by trademark law.  Public Domain Sherpa and Stanford University's page on Public Domain Trouble Spots both have good descriptions on how trademark law can affect your potential uses. Find out the basics of trademark law from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 
  • Patent law: Although it is a rare occurrence to have a public domain item covered by a patent
  • Licensed works: You may have heard of things like "click-wrap" or "shrink-wrap" licenses or you may have needed to sign a license in order to access certain kinds of information.   If you've encountered such things when using public domain content then your use may be restricted by the terms of a license rather than by copyright law.  One related pitfall you might encounter are so-called "copyright-free" or "royalty-free" collections of clip art, sound files, stock footage, etc.  These collections could be covered by a license agreement and you should verify what uses are allowed in the agreement.  Read more at Public Domain Sherpa or Stanford University's Welcome to The Public Domain page under the paragraph "Clip Art Compilations".    


Q: Why might I need to pay in order to access certain public domain materials?

A: Although the content of a public domain work may be free to reproduce, distribute, display, or perform, the physical material is still owned by someone (art museums, individual collectors, libraries, private institutions or individuals). 

Q: Are works created in foreign countries subject to the same copyright durations as those in the U.S.?  What works created outside of the U.S. are in the public domain?

A: Peter Hirtle's Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States addresses the basics of copyright durations of foreign works. International treaties that the U.S. has signed with other countries can also have a bearing on copyright durations.  For further information on international copyright issues, please see the U.S. Copyright Office's International Copyright Relations of the United States, Circular 38.      

Q: Are there any sound recordings in the public domain?

A: Generally, no.  The earliest year that sound recordings will enter the public domain will be in 2067.