This guide is intended to assist people who are interested in exploring interesting works which have entered the public domain. It covers:
1. Collecting Leads
Leads on interesting public domain works can come from a wide array of sources – from exhibitions, museums, concerts, television, the radio, books, newspapers, talking to people, etc.
The internet of course is another great resource. Blogs such as the excellent BibliOdyssey and Res Obscura regularly feature interesting works, (although, after following their links, it often takes a bit of snooping around in the small print of various institution’s copyright policies to determine whether something is published to the public domain or not). Social media has also offered new ways of exploring material that has entered the public domain. There are various archive/history focused tweeters out there calling attention to interesting works. If you’re a Twitter user, it is perhaps worth setting up a #publicdomain feed as people are increasingly using this tag when tweeting about interesting works that have entered the public domain.
On top of this there are also mailing lists dedicated to discussion about the public domain, where people often message each other about recently entered works. The Open Knowledge Foundation hosts one such mailing list and it can be subscribed to on the PD Discuss Mailing List info page.
If links from blogs, tweets, etc. lead you to copies with restrictions on use then don’t get too disheartened as there is often more than one copy available on the internet, and hopefully one licensed openly.
So, be it for the casual idle browse with nothing specific in mind, or to try find that wondrous work you heard about on a radio programme, saw at an exhibition, or saw featured on a blog, it is to the online collections which one should turn. The next section will give you a quick whistle stop tour of the largest online collections of public domain works.
2. Online Collections
Just before we get into the various collections out there it is worth noting that, although works may have been created long ago and so themselves are in the public domain, this unfortunately doesn’t always mean that their online digital versions are too. All too often they are published online under a restrictive license – often under CC BY-NC, which means there can be no commercial use of the material. Because of this it is important to have a grasp of the different Creative Commons licensing tools which people often use when uploading public domain material. Please see the Licensing section below for an explanation of all these various CC codes, knowing them will make navigation of the great resources below even easier….
Europeana is an online portal for exploring Europe’s cultural collections. It is currently collecting vast quantities of data from cultural heritage institutions across Europe about the collections of material they hold. That a work can be found on Europeana is, of course, no guarantee that it is in the public domain so additional filters must be applied in the search function. Once you’ve done an initial search you can use the “refined search” function underneath the search function on the left to search “by copyright”. Clicking on the CCO option will show you items published under an open license, i.e. free for any use. (Clicking CC BY-NC will show you all works published under a non-commercial license, i.e. use is restricted to non-commercial purposes). A handy alternative is to use these links as your entry points: for public domain/CC0 material and for creative commons licensed material (which you can then, through the dropdown options on the left, filter by specific license).
Often The Public Domain Review’s first port of call when looking for interesting material. This vast collection of cultural content hosts and links to a huge variety of public domain works including films, music and texts (not so good on images). Highlights include the Prelinger Archives, a fantastic collection of ephemeral and public service films on a huge range of topics, from how to be popular to surviving a nuclear attack, and a great collection of 78rpm records and cylinder recordings. The Internet Archive has also recently introduced a Curator’s Choice section for each major type of medium it provides access to, which can often serve as interesting jump off points into the the resources the archive holds. Again some stuff is only published under a CC BY-NC license, but you can use a special filter in the search function to help you just get public domain, CC BY and CC BY-SA material. For example say we want to use the key word “dog” for our search. For public domain stuff type into the search bar “/metadata/licenseurl:http*publicdomain/*AND dog”, and then on the dropdown menu whatever other filter you would like to add (e.g. texts, audio or moving images, etc). For CC BY stuff simply replace “publicdomain” with “by/”, and for CC BY-SA and CC BY-ND replace with “by-sa/” and “by-nd/” respectively. A little complicated but it does work! One important thing to note – you will notice many of the texts have been scanned by Google who have, unfortunately, published them under a license which restricts use to non-commercial activities. Also much of the licensing is done by users at the time of upload so do be aware of possible mistakes and mis-labelling!
Wikipedia’s media repository – the place to go for finding images, anything from 17th century anatomical engravings to the casual user uploaded snapshot of a shopping centre. They make a great effort to try and organise the content into categories to make navigation easier but it does sometimes take a little getting used to hit upon the (very useful) category section. Look out for Category:xxxxx (xxxxx being your search term) in the search results, or sometimes you are taken straight through to the category if your search is for something simple, e.g.“dogs”. They also work in partnership with various institutions to open up content – for example map dealers Geographicus donated an incredible set of over 2000 high resolution images from there collection in 2011. All content is in the public domain and so with a Public Domain Mark or else published with a CC BY-SA license.
A brilliant resource for all things American but also further afield – a huge collection of print, pictorial and audio-visual material. Most of the material is public domain but not all so do check on a case by case basis. Use the search bar in the top right or navigate via their very interesting curated collections.
A great place to find old photographs: like an immense online version of the old box of random photos you might find at a flea-market. Flickr have partnered up with various institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum, Library of Congress, etc. to bring hundreds of thousands of images online in one place. The licensing situation is a bit ambigious, employing the “no known copyright restrictions”. According to the website this either means that 1) the copyright is in the public domain because it has expired, 2) the copyright was injected into the public domain for other reasons, such as failure to adhere to required formalities or conditions, 3) the institution owns the copyright but is not interested in exercising control, or 4) that the institution has legal rights sufficient to authorize others to use the work without restrictions. If you click on the “no known copyright restrictions” license to the right of the image page then it should take you through to the institution’s website with more information about the particular licensing for that image.
Good site to find plain text/html versions of texts. An online library of free content publications, collected and maintained by the Wikipedia/Wikimedia community. They have over 273,000 texts in the English language library, as well as many other language versions of the site. Unless otherwise noted, all user contributions to Wikisource are released under CC BY-SA.
Another good repository of plain text/html texts. It offers over 38,000 free ebooks which you can download to your PC, Kindle, Android, iOS or other portable device. It features texts which are in the public domain in the U.S., so users in other jurisdictions should check before reusing.
Relatively new audio-visual archive, but growing rapidly. A good place to go for old Dutch newsreels! An initiative of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in collaboration with Knowledgeland.
A fantastic initiative which brings together a huge collection of material related to the study of living organisms from a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries, all in accordance with open principles, i.e. what is in the public domain stays in the public domain. They have also teamed up with Internet Archive to feature all of the content there too.
A wonderful resource making available thousands of historic media files for your creative projects — more than 60,000 image files, 2,500 audio files, and almost 10,000 film files, as well as over 100 3D models from NASA!
and of course, last but not least…
… that bounteous gateway into the whopping plenitude which is the public domain.
There are of course lots of other digital projects (many belonging to universities) which provide free access to material, though it does sometimes take a bit of snooping about in the small print to determine whether the institution in question is publishing its public domain works under an open license. Unfortunately many don’t. Some do however, e.g. the U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Walters Art Museum, University of Houston Digital Library, and many others, such as Cornell University Library and the California Digital Library that have teamed up with Internet Archive to house and display their digitised material there. For a good list of institutions that have opened up their digital collections, check out this list being compiled at OpenGLAM.
also it might be worth trying out the Creative Commons Search Tool which effectively makes public domain collections from things like Google Images, etc….
Another useful avenue through which to find public domain material is through the Creative Commons search tool. They search according to CC licensing via Europeana, Flickr, and Google Images, among others. But do be aware that, since there is no verification of the CC licenses attached to works by users, mistakes can be made! From the website: “If you are in doubt you should contact the copyright holder directly, or try to contact the site where you found the content.”
3. Legal Stuff
In order of “openness” here are the Creative Commons licensing tools which many online collections use to license the works that have been uploaded to their websites.
Public Domain Mark 1.0 – No known copyright
This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights. You can copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission. Used on works that are thought to be in the public domain all over the world.
CCO – No rights reserved
The person who associated a work with this deed has dedicated the work to the public domain by waiving all of his or her rights to the work worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law. You can copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission.
CC BY – Attribution
You are free to copy, distribute and transmit the work, to adapt the work, and to make commercial use of the work, providing that you attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).
CC BY-ND – Attribution-NoDerivs
You are free to copy, distribute and transmit the work, and to make commercial use of the work, providing that you attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.
CC BY-NC – Attribution Non-commercial Share-alike
You are free to copy, distribute and transmit the work, and to adapt the work, providing that you attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.
ii. When Does a Work Pass Into The Public Domain?
In general its fairly safe to say that if a work was made before 1850 then it is almost certainly in the public domain universally – that’s a lot of material that you are free to use however you wish without needing any kind of permission! As already mentioned, however, many institutions unfortunately claim copyright on scanned/uploaded and uploaded images of public domain works, so look out for the copyright status which should accompany such uploads.
For works more recent you have to know the law. Frustratingly, each country has different laws about when works enter the public domain, laws which normally vary depending on the medium of the work. Some countries go by the death of the author, some countries go by a cut off date for publication. For literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, in most countries in Europe and many other countries around the world, a work enters the public domain after 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies (for film this includes the principal director, screenwriter and composer of any music). For some countries its 50 years (Barbados), for others its 100 years (Mexico). For the U.S. its a completely different story as they work partially from a “cut off date model”, with lots of other factors involved based on when, or if at all, copyright was renewed. Here are some links to help you navigate the choppy legal seas!
UK Copyright Service – a clear explanation of the law for those in the UK.
An article by Peter Hirtle (of Cornell University Library) explaining some of the complexities of the U.S. system.
Wikipedia list of copyright lengths by country – For other countries around the world, by typing the name of your country and “copyright law” into your search engine, you should hit upon something official. For those looking for an overview this Wikipedia site is useful: of course don’t take this as the last word but its a good rough guide.
There often occurs, of course, the situation when you might want to use a work which is in the public domain in its country of origin but not in the public domain in your own country. Some countries employ the excellent “Rule of the shorter term”, which means that they default to which ever term is the shortest when considering the copyright status of works published outside of that country – the copyright term provided by that country or the copyright term provided by work’s home country. Be aware though that though they may profess that they follower the “Rule of the shorter term” many countries have adopted specific bi-lateral agreements with others which override the rule.