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Finding Open Image Collections: Image & Music Use Guide

This guide is to assist you in better understanding the various license agreements available when accessing images on the internet. Here you will find information on licencing, how to cite images for your papers and presentations, as well as an ever-growi

What is Public Domain?



The public domain consists of all the creative work to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply. Those rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived. The term of copyright on a work in Canada is 70 years after the death of the creator of the work. After the point copyright expires and the work is said to be "in the public domain." However, the term of copyright protection can vary based on the type of work and when it was first published.

Why does it matter if a work is in the public domain? When copyright expires or is waived for a work it becomes freely usable by everyone. You can use the material without copyright restrictions.

It is important to note that "The Public Domain" is not a specific place, it is not a website or the things we find online using search engines rather it the state of all materials for which the copyright has expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, and generally includes a large amount of very old materials. An easy way to use public domain materials is to use collections that are specifically marked as public domain but If you need to determine if a work has entered the public domain you can do so reviewing the chart below.

The table below, borrowed from Stanford's helpful and thorough fair use and copyright guide, provides general guidelines for when works are likely to enter the public domain.

Table for Determining Public Domain Status by Rich Stim/Stanford. Used under CC BY-NC.
Works published in the US before 1923            In the public domain.
Works published in the US after 1923 but before 1964

Initial term of 28 years. If not renewed during the 28th year, the work falls into the     public domain.

Generally, if a work was published after 1922 but before March 1, 1989

Generally, if a work was published without copyright notice under the authorization of the copyright owner and the law does not  provide an exception for the omission, the work is in the public domain.

Note* This image requires no attribution or citation because it is in the public domain

The Battle of Copyright. Ancient Greek warrior repersenting copyright stabs man repersenting public domain, with spear. Arrow repersenting free culture has been shot into the leg of the warrior repersenting copyright.

 Public Domain

The term “public domain” refers to materials (not specifically images but inclusive of images) that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. Those rights may have expired, been forfeited, or expressly waived. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it. In the United States, an image will fall automatically into the public domain 100 years after the death of the image creator at the point copyright expires. To learn more about the Public domain visit the Creative Commons Website.

Creative Commons logo

CC0 enables scientists, educators, artists and other creators and owners of copyright- or database-protected content to waive those interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain, so that others may freely build upon, enhance and reuse the works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law. To learn more about CC0 visit the Creative Commons Website.