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Copyright Information: Public Domain & Creative Commons

Your guide to information & resources on copyright.

Works that are in the public domain or have Creative Commons licenses offer alternatives to using copyrighted material. Below are tips for finding , identifying, and using works in the public domain and with CC licenses, as well as related  legal resources.

Public Domain

The public domain refers to works without copyright protection and therewith no restrictions on the use of them and includes:

  • Works that are not copyrightable
    • Ideas
    • Data/facts
  • Works of the US federal government (with exceptions) (Section 105)
  • Works placed in PD by creators under Creative Commons license of CC0 
  • Works whose copyright has expired

Keep in mind, we are assuming works in the US and for the most part printed.

Tip: Works prior to 1924 are typically public domain. 

  • What type of work is it - published or unpublished?
  • Where was it published - US or foreign publication?
  • When was it published?
  • Does it have a copyright notice?
    • "Copyrighted...," "Copr.". "(C)," "(P)"
  • Has it been registered? 
  • Copyright renewal?
    • Renewals used to be required to continue copyright protection after the first 28 years 
    • Became automatic in 1964

Royalty-Free Items & Licensed Works

Royalty-free works are still protected by copyright law, but the copyright owner of a royalty-free work is permitting certain uses of the work without collecting financial royalties for the use. The owner may impose certain restrictions on the use of the work.

Licensed works are similar to royalty-free works but often require financial payment and certain restrictions based on the license agreement the user  must consent to for use..

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) licenses give copyright holders the ability to pick how they would allow others to use their work and provide an easier means for others to use their work. 

Creative Commons are typically one or a combination of the following:

  • Attribution (BY) - for reuse with attribution/credit to the creator
  • Share-a-like (SA) - for reuse & modification
  • Non-commercial (NC) - for non-commercial use
  • No derivative (ND) - for reuse without modification

Licenses can be mixed and matched as desired. One exception: CC-ND and CC-SA can't be combined.

For images of these licenses and others, view these Creative Commons licenses.

Examples of Creative Common Licensing:

  • A work licensed CC By-SA is a work which can be used and adapted if (1) the creator is credited with the work and (2) the adaptation of that work is shared under the same terms.
  • A work licensed CC NC-ND is a work which can be copied (1) for non-commercial purposes only and (2) copied but not adapted.

Additional options are available. Please contact Christina Bonner more resources.

U.S. Code & Law