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Copyright Information and Guidelines: Public Domain

This guide for the Bentley University community presents information on copyright and provides guidance in evaluating the use of copyrighted material in higher education and scholarship.

What is the Public Domain?

As you begin to consider using a published work, either in course-related instruction or in scholarly research, you should check to see if that work resides in the public domain. Works in the public domain are freely available to use without restriction because either they are ineligible for copyright protection, or the copyrights associated with them no longer apply. This may be for a variety of reasons, but is usually the result of the copyright expiring or the rightsholder neglecting, purposefully or not, to renew copyright registration. Works and information contained within the public domain represent some of the most vital resources available to students and faculty, serving as the foundation for transformative uses of existing material, all of which may be freely reproduced and distributed in class or digitized and placed on course sites.

Content in public domains vary from country to country. What may be freely available in one part of the world, may not be in other parts. For example, when James Joyce's works entered the public domain in Ireland and other parts of Europe in early 2012, this did not extend to the United States public domain. Copyright laws in general differ depending upon where the work was orginally published, and where rightsholders still retain control over their work. It is worth noting that the United States has some of the most restrictive copyright laws in the world.

Types of Work in the Public Domain

There is a wealth of information that does not qualify for federal copyright protection. Some of this includes:

  • Film
  • Images (photographs, works of art, graphics, etc.)
  • Music
  • Ideas and facts
  • Most U.S. government works (projects written by non-government authors with federal funding may be copyright protected)
  • Scientific principles, theorems, mathematical formulae, laws of nature
  • Scientific and other research methodologies, statistical techniques and educational processes
  • Laws, regulations, judicial opinions, government documents and legislative reports
  • Words, names, numbers, symbols, signs, rules of grammar and diction, and punctuation

 

Resources

Government Sources

Considerable content is available from U.S. government sources, all free to the public and digitized for ease of access.

  • The Library of Congress Digital Collections - has made digitized versions of collection materials available online since 1994, concentrating on its most rare collections and those unavailable anywhere else. It boasts a growing treasury of digitized photographs, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and books, as well as "born digital" materials such as Web sites. In addition, the Library maintains and promotes the use of digital library standards and provides online research and reference services.
  • The National Archives - The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation's record keeper. Of all documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government, only 1%-3% are so important for legal or historical reasons that they are kept forever. Those valuable records are preserved and made available, from census and military records, to the nation's founding documents.

Text

The digitization of public domain books began decades ago. Recently, many cooperative projects have developed between partnerships of interested organizations, to establish a comprehensive and searchable repository of public domain texts, with the ultimate goal of making freely available millions of volumes of public domain titles.

  • Project Gutenberg - Founded in 1971, Project Gutenberg is an archive of digitized and freely available works, comprised mostly of public domain material, in open and easily accessible formats.
  • The Internet Archive Text Archive - Contains a wide range of fiction, popular books, children's books, historical texts and academic books that are free to access and download. This collection is open to the community for the contribution of any type of text, many licensed using Creative Commons licenses.
  • HathiTrust - A partnership of major research institutions and libraries that has created a digital preservation repository and highly functional access platform. It provides long-term preservation and access services for public domain and in copyright content from a varirty of sources, including Google, the Internet Archive, Microsoft, and in-houese partner institution initiatives.

Music/Audio

Music and lyrics published in 1922 or earlier are in the Public Domain in the United States. No one can claim ownership of a song in the public domain, therefore public domain songs may be used by anyone. Music recordings, however, are copyright protected separately from musical compositions. There are no sound recordings in the U.S Public Domain. If you need a music recording - even a recording of a public domain song - you will either have to record it yourself or license an existing recording.

  • The Public Domain Information Project was organized to provide information about public domain music, including a comprehensive list of public domain songs and sheet music as well as other related resources.
  • The Internet Archive - Audio Archive contains over two hundred thousand free digital recordings ranging from alternative news programming, to concerts, to Old Time Radio shows, to book and poetry readings, to original music uploaded by our users. Many of these audios and MP3s are available for free download.
 
Film
 
There is no definitive list of films in the public domain. An individual film, above all other media, is the most difficult to qualify for public domain status because it incorporates many distinct elements that themselves may still fall under copyright protection (i.e. music, cinematography, fictional characterization, art direction, etc). The souces listed below, while stating that the films that appear in their collections are, to the best of their knowledge, in the public domain, also admit that there will always be uncertainty regarding their copyright-free status. Proceed with caution.
  • The Internet Archive - Moving Images provides near-unrestricted access to digitized collections of moving images, virtually all in the public domain. The largest collection is comprised of over 1,200 ephemeral (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films made from 1927 through the present.

 
Images
 
Below are just a few of many free image sites available online. Many of these sites claim to offer images that are in the public domain or free of copyright restrictions. While these sites often attempt to determine the availabilty of images, it is recommended that a thorough investigation of the source of an image is conducted before using it. You may consider searching for images with a Creative Commons license to eliminate the risk of infringement.
  • PublicDomainImage.com large collection of public domain images, royalty-free stock photos, copyright free images. All images are explicitly placed in the public domain, free for personal or commercial use.

  • PublicDomainPictures.net a repository for free public domain images.

Disclaimer

Please note that the above information is for reference purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. It is advisable to always conduct a Fair Use Analysis whenever there is a question regarding the lawful use of copyrighted material. If, after careful evaluation, it is determined that the use of particular material would violate copyright law, or if you need to purchase copyright permissions for such use, please contact Matthew Van Sleet at 781.891.2311 or mvansleet@bentley.edu.

More on Public Domain

  

Tools and Resources

Relevant U.S. Copyright Code