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Copyright for Higher Education: Public Domain

This guide provides faculty and staff with information about their rights and responsibilities when using copyrighted materials in face to face or online classes.

Public Domain

Public Domain

If a work is is in the public domain, anyone can use it freely, but you should still provide proper attribution. Works may be in the public domain due to their age, status as U.S. Government documents, or because the author has relinquished their copyright. Copyright terms for the United States and other countries are often different, and the time at which a work enters the public domain may differ based on when and where it was created. These charts specify when various types of works enter the public domain.

In general, these works fall into the public domain:

  • Works published in the United States before 1923.
  • Works published between 1923-1978 without a copyright notice
  • Works created by the U.S. federal government, or by federal employees in the course of their work.

Do not just assume that a work is in the public domain - be sure to check. If the work is not in the public domain, check to see if your intended use falls under either the education exception or Fair Use. Lolly Gassaway's When U.S. Works Pass Into the Public Domain chart can help you determine whether works you want to use have passed into the Public Domain.

Public Domain Sources

A lot of public domain information exists on the Internet that you (and your students) can use.

  • Project Gutenberg - over 56,000 free e-books in a variety of formats that support web browsers and e-readers.
  • Pixabay - over 1.4 million free stock photos, illustrations, vector graphics, and videos.
  • Open Clipart - 142,000 open access clip art images.
  • Wikimedia Commons - over 46 million images free for public use.
  • The Commons - A catalog of public domain photos.
  • Getty Open Images - 114,000 images provided by the Getty Institution.
  • The Public Domain Review - curated collection of public domain images, books, film, and audio.
  • Pond5 - more than 60,000 image files, 2,500 audio files, and almost 10,000 film files consisting of historic media.
  • Biodiversity Heritage Library - free research provided by a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries. Includes some copyrighted materials under license.
  • The Internet Archive - provides access to millions of books, movie, music, and software files. Use the search feature to locate Public Domain materials.
  • Public Domain Sherpa - listings for sources of public domain audio recordings including music and spoken word.
  • International Music Score Library Project - 370,000 scores searchable by composer, name, or period.
  • Freesound - a database of sounds ranging from bird song to thunderstorms and electronic sounds.

Checking Copyright Status

Several tools can help you check the copyright status of works that you want to use. If it was created after 1978, it is best to assume that the work is protected by copyright.

Public Domain