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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!)

Determining Usability

painting of a man in fancy dress, with a speech bubble reading "help! I'm in the public domain! JK it's nice here =)"


Copyright issues and the public domain can get a little fuzzy, but there is one super important thing to keep in mind while determining public domain status:

  • In the United States in 2022, anything published in the country before 1927 is in the public domain. Copyright for that work, if ever established, has expired.

Other works might be in the public domain in the U.S. — consult this table from the University of California for some criteria.

Interestingly, the rules vary by country — something in the public domain in Canada might not yet be in the public domain in the U.S. Check out the Wikipedia page for List of Countries' copyright lengths for a breakdown of how the rules differ across the globe.


Image: Old Man with a Gold Chain by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, via the Art Institute of Chicago (lightly remixed)

What About Fair Use?

So glad you asked! It's pretty much on a case-by-case basis, and there is no easy guidelines to tell whether or not infringement has taken place.

Fair use means that you get a legal OK to use copyright works under very specific conditions. The U.S. Copyright Act uses four key criteria to determine if a use is fair, or if it's copyright infringement:

  • Is the use for commercial or non-profit/educational purposes?: You're more likely going to get a "fair use" decision when the use is benefitting non-profit or educational purposes (though, of course, not always!)
  • How does the new work relate to the copyrighted work?: A journalistic or newsy work based on the copyrighted work is more likely to get a "fair use" decision than a creative work based on the original.
  • How much of the copyrighted work did you use?: Using a little vs. a lot of the original work matters when determining fair use.
  • How does the use of the copyrighted work affect its marketability?: Does the new work mean the original won't sell?

To get a little deeper into the subject, head to the U.S. Copyright Fair Use Index, a government website that discusses various court decisions related to fair use principles. The website is also the source of all the information above.


And the Creative Commons?

You may have heard the term "creative commons" used in reference to creative works. Creative Commons is a non-profit that promotes open culture and has popularized the use of "creative commons licenses." These licenses generally mean the same thing — that the item is available for use! — but they do differ slightly. Sometimes a license asks for specific attribution, sometimes it doesn't, and etc. 

Read more about the CC licenses here.


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