Rights Labelling on Our Site
When we encounter a public domain work online it is in the form of a digital copy. While the underlying work itself is free from copyright, the digital copy can sometimes be subject to claims of additional copyright (or restrictions applied to its use). Rights and licences applying to public domain works found online can therefore be broadly divided into two categories:
- The rights status of the underlying work, by which is meant the original work itself (the words of a book, the actual physical painting or drawing, a musical score, etc.).
- The rights status of the digital copy, by which is meant the digital reproduction of this original work (usually a scan or photograph).
For the historical content found in the Collections part of our site, we offer our best guess as to the rights status of both the underlying work and the digital copy of this work. We apply these labels based on a basic knowledge of copyright law and what is communicated by the source institution. We don’t assert any rights ourselves. We provide this information strictly as a guideline only and it should not be taken as legal advice. If reusing material for commercial purposes, it might be a good idea to investigate further.
On the Underlying Work
On The Public Domain Review, while we mostly feature works in the public domain worldwide, some may not be public domain in all countries. Below is a summary of the different kinds of rights relevant to the content found in our Collections.
Works on our site labelled “PD Worldwide” are deemed by us to most likely be in the public domain worldwide and so free of known restrictions under copyright law. This means, no matter where you reside, you would be able to copy, modify, distribute, and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission. This is mostly true of all works created or published prior to 1870, though do be wary if reusing in the US when the work is an artwork, as their convoluted copyright law (based on specific definitions of “publication”) might complicate matters. Source institutions will often label works in the public domain worldwide with the Creative Commons Public Domain Mark or CC0 licence.
PD 70 Years
Works on our site labelled “PD 70 Years” are deemed by us to be in the public domain due to copyright expiring 70 years after the death of the work’s creator. This applies to many countries around the world including the UK, most European Union members, Brazil, Israel, Nigeria, Russia, and Turkey. Check out Wikipedia’s list of copyright lengths by country for a useful starter guide.
PD 50 Years
Works on our site labelled “PD 50 Years” are deemed by us to be in the public domain due to copyright expiring 50 years after the death of the work’s creator. This applies to many countries around the world including New Zealand, Australia (for pre-1955 deaths) and many countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. Check out Wikipedia’s list of copyright lengths by country for a useful starter guide. (NB: We also use this “PD 50 Years” label to refer to the copyright term in Finland for "non-artistic" photographs, which is 50 years from the end of the year during which the photograph was made.)
Works on our site labelled “PD US” are deemed by us to be in the public domain in the United States. When it comes to works published prior to 1978, the US applies a system based mainly on publication date (with other factors involved based on when, or if at all, copyright was renewed). Films and books (including the artworks included) published more than 95 years ago are generally considered to be in the public domain in the US. However, US copyright law is very complicated, particularly when it comes to the public domain status of artworks, so do take care if using material for commercial purposes. A useful starter guide is this excellent chart from Cornell University.
Works on our site labelled “PD GOV” are deemed by us to be in the public domain on account of being the product of a government employee of countries which place such government-made works, either immediately or after a designated time period, into the public domain. The chief example is the US Government: a work prepared by an officer or employee of the US government as part of that person’s official duties is automatically public domain, at least as the rights apply in the US. (Be aware that copyright might be claimed in other jurisdictions). Another example is in the case of works made by an employee of the UK government that fall under “Crown Copyright”. Such works, which have been published, generally have a copyright expiring 50 years from date of publication — and this applies worldwide. Please make sure you check the source to see which particular Government law applies to the work. See this useful flowchart.
No Known Restrictions
Works on our site labelled “No Known Restrictions” are deemed by the institution that houses them to be free of copyright restrictions, normally based on a lack of information rather than a presence of proof. It is a very popular label applied to photographs found in Flickr: The Commons. Be careful if re-using such works, particularly in the case of photographs, as they may be subject to other third party rights, such as rights of privacy and rights of publicity.
Works on our site labelled with “Effectively PD” are centuries-old textual works that were unpublished before 1989 and created by European Economic Area (EEA) citizens, meaning they will technically remain in copyright in the UK until at least 31 December 2039. As the British Library explains, “For unpublished material created centuries ago, and out of copyright in nearly all other countries apart from the UK, it seems reasonable to assume that publishing this material is very unlikely to offend anyone and so could be treated as if public domain.”
On the Digital Copy
No Additional Rights
If digital copies on our site are labelled with “Attribution”, it implies that the source institution allows you to copy, distribute, and transmit the copy, to adapt the copy, and to make commercial use of the copy, provided you attribute the copy in the manner specified by the author or licensor. Such cases are often denoted by the Creative Commons’ CC BY licence. To see how attribution should be done, you can visit the institution’s website itself and find the page stipulating their Terms or Conditions of Use, or any linked Creative Commons licence.
If digital copies on our site are labelled with “Share-Alike” it implies that the digitising institution is allowing you to copy, distribute, and transmit the copy, to adapt the copy, and to make commercial use of the copy, provided you both attribute the copy in the manner specified by the author or licensor, and, if you alter, transform, or build upon the copy, that you distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar licence. Such cases are often denoted by the Creative Commons’ CC BY-SA licence. As above, to see in which way attribution is to be done you should visit the institution’s website itself and find the page stipulating their Terms or Conditions of Use, or any linked to Creative Commons licence.
If digital copies on our site are labelled with “PD Wikimedia” it means that, although the source institution may assert restrictions on use, the Wikimedia Foundation asserts that the digital copy is in the public domain, at least in the US where the law tends to lean in their favour. The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that “faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain, and that claims to the contrary represent an assault on the very concept of a public domain”. The vast majority of digital copies are labelled as free from all rights, but there are some labelled with Creative Commons licenses, so do look out for those. By its nature, as there is no explicit permission given by the source institution, re-using such works carries more risk, and depending on local laws, re-use of this content may be prohibited or restricted in your jurisdiction.
If digital copies on our site are labelled with “Unclear” it implies that the source institution, which we suspect wouldn’t impose additional rights on re-use, has not clearly indicated either way. The few source institutions whose material we label with this all feature works through the Internet Archive, and it is possible that this material might therefore fall under the Internet Archive’s default CC BY-NC-SA licence. It is worth checking with the source institution before reusing.
Provided rights info is a guideline only
The information we provide relating to rights and the usability of historical content is based on a rudimentary knowledge of copyright law and the information communicated by the source institution — it is strictly meant as a guideline only and it should not be taken as legal advice. We admit no responsibility for any untoward consequences that may arise through reuse of material featured on our site. If you believe that any guidance we have provided on the site is incorrect or out of date, then please do get in touch.