Public Domain

What it is, what it isn't, and where to find it.

What is Public Domain?

Public Domain refers to material that is freely usable by the public without the risk of prosecution for copyright infringement. That means you don't have to pay to use it, and you don't need to ask permission either. Public Domain is not the same as Creative Commons and shouldn't be mixed up!

What makes a material Public Domain?

In order for something to be considered Public Domain, certain rules and guidelines apply. First of all, something like a thought, an idea, or a theory can't be copyrighted in the first place, so you wouldn't see these things listed in the Public Domain. In 1978, Public Domain became a lot stricter and had better defined guidelines to what exactly should be free to use and how long something is copyright protected. Nowadays, in the U.S., a material (in this case a tangible, original work) is protected by copyright for the rest of the creator's life, and an additional 70 years from it's publication. But, this is only pertinent to copyrights filed after January, 1st, 1978. Anything before this date, up until 1923, would have been protected for a minimum of 28 years if it was not renewed. Materials produced before 1923 are now in the Public Domain.

What are some examples of Public Domain?

Surprisingly, there are a multitude of materials that are considered Public Domain. A lot of these books, movies, and other forms of media are rather old, but old doesn't mean useless! You'll find that many of the books, short stories, or poems that your teachers ask you to read or report on can be found free of charge online because they were written before 1923 and are in the Public Domain for your use. A few popular stories you may find include:

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker

And that's only to name a few! And even if you're not assigned to read any of the books, they're still great classics and should be read by everyone at least once. You can find these books and more for free on the Project Gutenberg website.

Some books and media however are not going to be found on a Public Domain site. New books, new poems, older books that have had copyright renewed, or anything that you're not completely sure of should always be checked and made sure that using them won't get you into trouble with the author or their heirs!

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is another great source for original, artistic materials. These materials however aren't usually going to be well-known or popular materials. Creative Commons allows artists, authors, and musicians to license their original work and set guidelines for how it can or can't be used for free. This would be a good source if you're looking for something contemporary and modern rather than old and maybe a bit more difficult to understand. On the site, you have the option to type in a search query, define your reason for use, and choose which database you want to search in. This site is mostly for photography and music so keep that in mind when you're trying to find something to add to your PowerPoint presentation. You can find a great amount of materials here at the Creative Commons website.

Sources for Public Domain Materials

With the plethora of websites and links that are available online, finding a reliable and convenient source to read/use free materials can be a project in itself. Here's a few great sites that you can search around in and find something that will help you.

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