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INFO LIT: The Public Domain

A brief guide to the public domain, copyright, creative licensing, and more (or: how to figure out if you can use that image you found online!)

What Is the Public Domain?

Want to add a photo to your website or use a song in your video? Not so fast! 

Most contemporary works of art, literature, and music have a stated (or implied) owner. This means that you either simply can't use the thing in your own works, or you must seek out permission from the creator or owner to use it. Seeking permission for use can be a thorny issue, because sometimes ownership is difficult to parse — or use permissions may even require payment. But don't fret! There's a category of works that is open and available for your use: things in the public domain.

The term "public domain" — and sometimes, "open access" — refers to works that have no ownership claims to them. This could be because the work was created long ago and has since aged out of ownership, or because the creator has voluntarily elected to forgo ownership. When a work is in the public domain, anyone is able to use it for any purpose (from using it in your creative project to remixing it to adapting it and more.)

When you are in search of a creative work for any purpose, start with public domain works — the proper use of these things is guaranteed! (Don't search Google Images and pick the first image you like!) Check the tab "Finding Public Domain Works" at left for advice on how to do that.

Wait, What's Copyright?

So wait, what is copyright then? Take it from the US Copyright Office:

Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression. In copyright law, there are a lot of different types of works, including paintings, photographs, illustrations, musical compositions, sound recordings, computer programs, books, poems, blog posts, movies, architectural works, plays, and so much more!

Learn more via the website.

Why should I care?

right-facing male wearing red headdress  left-facing male wearing burgundy headdress


Why is it important to learn about the public domain?

  • Works in the public domain are essentially up for grabs — you are able to use, adapt, remix, etc. them without needing to seek permission from anyone. There's no fee for using these works!
  • How creative can you get? Here are some ideas:
  • You're only limited by the confines of your imagination — no rules or restrictions on the source material!


  • Ownership of creative works can be important to creators, especially in their lifetime. It can be helpful (and important!) to understand how to avoid infringing anyone's rights over their own work. In some cases, copyright infringement can be a big — and expensive — problem!


Images: Matteo Olivieri (?), 1430sProfile Portrait of a Young Man, 1430/1450. Both via the National Gallery of Art.