Public Domain: Things to Remember
One of the best introductions to specifics of determining if works are in the public domain in the US by reviewing copyright duration is Cornell University’s table, Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. Stanford University Libraries’ pages on copyright and fair use, particularly Welcome to the Public Domain, provide information on special cases and exceptions that define the concept.
At the risk of oversimplification, these are basics of what places a document in the public domain in the United States:
- Its creator, the copyright holder, explicitly releases the material into the public domain. Such is the case with Carol Highsmith. This is likely the rarest way.
- In the US, the image was produced by a Federal employee as part of his or her job. All three parts of this sentence need attention: this is how it works in the US, this is how it works with Federal—not state, not county, not municipal — employees, and it pertains to what the employee does on the clock, not in his or her free time (if I work for the National Park Service and I photograph a bear during my work hours, that’s public domain. If I spend my weekends using my own funds to travel the park and photograph bears, I own the weekend pictures.). Thus while most images on a .gov Federal agency’s site may be public domain, you have to be aware of any exceptions noted.
- In the US, the image was published before 1923.
What is in the public domain in one nation may not be in another. I try to remember to qualify my introduction to public domain materials with the phrase “in the US.”
I’ve limited myself to materials that are explicitly designated as in the public domain or to those which have a very very high probability of so being. In this second category are many of the images from the Library of Congress which the Library cataloguers have labeled under “Copyright Restrictions” as “No known restrictions on publication.”
Pay Nothing; Give Credit.
An image in the public domain is one that you don’t have to pay a licensing fee or ask permission to use, regardless of your purpose. These are what I am interested in here, not those that can be used for your personal or for educational purposes, but for any, including for-profit uses. If you are looking for images for personal or educational purposes, there are a lot more sources to choose from.
Agencies vary in their wording regarding your obligation to give credit to the source of the image you are using. Some, such as NOAA, are emphatic: “credit MUST be given to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce unless otherwise instructed to give credit to the photographer or other source”; others, less so, for example, FWS: “We do ask that you give credit to the photographer or creator and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in a format similar to the example below.”
I simply don’t know the legalities of this. But it seems to me that it is fair and just to give credit where credit is due. Cite your sources. If the ethical argument doesn’t grab you, do it for selfish reasons. Your viewers or readers know that you didn’t take that picture of a supernova, so where did it come from? You appear more professional and reliable when you are scrupulous about citing your sources, and you appear that way because you are.