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Finding Copyright-Free Images: Public Domain

This guide will help you to identify and use images that are not subject to copyright.

Works in the Public Domain

Here a few examples of creators whose works are in the public domain:

  • William Shakespeare
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Sir Isaac Newton

It is important to note, however, that while certain works may be in the public domain, expressions or versions of that work may be under copyright protection.

For example, a symphony by Mozart may be in the public domain, but a recording of an orchestra playing that symphony may be copyrighted. The same goes for Shakespeare. The play Romeo & Juliet is in the public domain, but the 1996 film version of that play directed by Baz Luhrmann starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes is under copyright protection.

A Painting in the Public Domain

A Maid Milking a Cow in a Barn

Gerard ter Borch, A Maid Milking a Cow in a Barn, ca. 1652-1654, J. Paul Getty Museum

The Importance of Public Domain

Public Domain works are not protected by copyright law and they may therefore be legally used without permission.

A work may enter the public domain when/if:

  • Its copyright protection expires
  • It fails to meet requirements for copyright protection
  • It predates copyright law
  • The author chooses to release it to the public domain

This guide from Cornell University provides an outline for copyright terms and when works may enter the public domain: Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States (January 2013).

Just because a work is online and easily accessible does not mean it's in the public domain. Images can still be protected by copyright, even if a creator or © is not clearly stated. That said, true public domain works can be found online.

Digital images are electronic resources that need to be used responsibly and with an awareness of copyright and ethical use best practices. Most databases and web sites provide information about how their images can be used. It is important to read this information carefully, and comply with all usage guidelines.  Usage guidelines can vary considerably, so be alert to differences and details.

Images from the sources in this OWHLGuide are available for use on the open web. You are free to use these images in multimedia projects, websites, blogs, portfolios, etc, that are open and available to the public. When you use these images, you do not need to restrict access to your class or academic environment. However, images should not be sold or used in commercial products or for commercial purposes.

You should always read and comply with the use restrictions for specific image sources and always cite images someone else created.

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Michael Blake
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