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Creative content

So by now, if you've been following the site, you might be bold enough to consider yourself an expert on whether images are in the public domain (PD) or not. But tricky cases arise all the time. For instance, there's actually one type of image that can't be copyrighted, that I haven't mentioned so far: the information-only work. Here's the skinny.

One of the most important principles of copyright is "creative content". If an image has no creative content, then it can't be copyrighted. The digits of pi aren't copyrightable, because they contain only "information", not "creativity". Because of this principle, a completely black image, or a simple image of a triangle, is in the PD. In fact, typefaces aren't copyrightable in the U.S. (although they are just about everywhere else), so a picture of a word is also safe to use. But as you can imagine, there's a lot of gray area; that's what we have lawyers for. My advise is, don't push it. If a judge rules that an image has even a minute amount of creative content, it can be copyrighted, and different judges can have different standards.

But one of the pleasant off-shoots of this is that scans of paintings are generally not copyrightable: just the original artwork is. So if a painting was first published before 1923, then a scan of the painting is PD, even if the scan was made recently. A judge ruled in Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. that copies of artwork produce no new "creative content", so you're off the hook on that one. This opens a whole new array of PD images.

There are lots of great places on the web to find scans of PD paintings and drawings. Be careful though; some of them may be copyrighted if the original piece was first published after 1923, and it may be difficult to tell when a painting was officially published, so proceed with caution.

The three best sites I have found are the Web Gallery of Art, the Webmuseum of Paris, and the Art Renewal Center. The CGFA also has scans of artwork, and will have some pieces not listed in the links above. In addition, many museums, such as the National Gallery of London and the Louvre, sometimes have scans of their paintings available, but these esources are usually somewhat less useful.


Different laws for different countries

As I described in the previous post, different countries have widely different copyright laws. For instance, in Mexico copyright expires 100 years after the author dies! Civil-War-era pictures taken in Mexico would still be under copyright so long as the author died less that a century ago. But that's Mexico's copyright. In the U.S. it would be considered public domain (PD), and you could use the image any way you like. Just don't try to sell copies in Mexico. Other countries have more liberal copyright laws. In Japan, copyright expires 50 years after the author (or photographer) dies, so a World War II photograph taken under Japanese jurisdiction would be public domain in Japan if the photographer died more than 50 years ago. (A photo taken in the U.S. at the same time would still be under copyright.) It simply depends on the country.

In this global village, however, these things get murky. For web pages in general, the country where the servers reside is the country whose laws have to be obeyed. And since the U.S. is the Ultimate Big Boy On The Block, so long as you live in the U.S. and follow U.S. copyright rules, you should be okay. If you live elsewhere, of course, your rules are different.

So what are the U.S. copyright rules for materials published outside the U.S.? Happily, there are only limited differences. If any photograph was first published before 1923, then the U.S. considers it PD no matter what the country of origin thinks. It might also be PD if (a) the work was created before 1977, and (b) the work was considered PD in its country of origin in 1996. I know, that's horribly, unnecessarily complicated. But this is copyright law we're talking about. As a practical matter, if the photo's country of origin considers the photo PD, then you're safe using it as if it were PD, even if the photo was taken after 1922.

In most countries, copyright expires 50 years after the death of the author (or photographer). In European Union countries, and countries that are hoping to become EU countries, copyright expires 70 years after the creator's death. Central and South America are a little weird. A list of the copyright terms for each country can be found here. But you usually have to find out when the photographer died, which is difficult in practice, so if you don't know, you're only safe if the photo was published before 1923.

There's one more complication, but it's a good thing. The rules I gave you above are a result of bilateral or multilateral copyright treaties between the U.S. and other countries. But there are a few countries that don't have any copyright treaties with the U.S. For works produced in those countries by residents of those countries, the U.S. considers them not copyrightable and therefore PD. These countries are Bhutan, Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal, San Marino, and probably Yemen (although that situation is a bit murky.) Also, some countries have only recently entered into such treaties with the U.S. If a work was produced by a resident in Iraq before 2004, in Afghanistan before 2002, or in countries of the former Soviet Union before May 27, 1973, then the work is considered uncopyrighted and PD in the U.S.

Here are some resources which are considered public domain because their host country does not have a copyright treaty with the United States. Again, be sure that the photo was taken in the country in question, by a resident of the country (and not a by tourist or foreign reporter).


Old images in the public domain

Besides images that were never copyrightable in the first place, some images used to be copyrighted, but their copyright has expired. These images are also in the public domain (PD).

There is a wonderful abundance of older images available on the World Wide Web, some of them out of copyright. Here are a few of my favorite sites featuring old PD images:
All of those above are PD due to age. So how do you know if an old image is old enough to be PD or not? It's both really simple, and really complicated.

The simple answer is, if a picture (or anything else) was first published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, then its PD (in the U.S.). If it wasn't, then it's probably not. For most purposes, that's good enough. So long as you only deal with those pictures, you're guarranteed safe. But for other cases, the devil's in the details.

But what if the image was never published? If an image was never published (or if it was first published after 2002 even though it was created before 1935), then different rules apply. If an unpublished work was created by a known author with a known year of death, then the work is in the public domain if the author died before 1935. If the unpublished work is by an anonymous or corporate author, or if the year of death for the author is not known, then the work is in the public domain if the work was created before 1885. This often requires research to determine. Copyright lawyers make good money looking stuff like this up.

To make things more complicated, if an image was first published after 1923, the copyright might have expired anyway under certain circumstances (although it's unlikely). And remember that if the copyright has expired, that means the image is PD. Here are the official exceptions as to why an image's copyright might have expired, even if it was first published in the U.S. after 1923:
But those are rare exceptions. Failure to properly renew copyright is the reason that, for instance, the movie Arsenic and Old Lace is in the Public Domain, even though it was released in 1944. But most of the time, if something was published after 1922, it's probably copyrighted.

All this refers to images published in the U.S. Different countries have different copyright laws. But I'll deal with this in another post.


U.S. Government images

As I indicated previously, the U.S. Government is not authorized to claim copyright. For that reason, any image that is taken by an employee of a U.S. Government agency, acting in an official capacity, is in the public domain (PD). Here is a terrific web portal to various government images:
However, as the page says, not all images in the list are actually PD. A few of them are copyrighted by quasi-government agencies, such as the Smithsonian Institution. Even these have rather permissive licenses. If you wanted to download and use this picture of a fish for non-commercial purposes, Smithsonian's license says that would be fine. But if you tried to make money off of it, they could sue you. (Here is their official policy.)

This is one thing I'm very proud of about my country. If you wanted to use an official British government image, you have to ask the Crown's permission. The same is true of nearly every country on the globe. But if you want to use a U.S. government image, even if you want to make money off it, you're free to do whatever you like with it.

Here are some other great sites to find U.S. Government images, all in the public domain. These are links to image portals themselves, not to the department's main web site.
And the list goes on and on. I'll add more links as time permits. These should keep you for a while.


The Library of Congress and Public Domain.

The Library of Congress is a fantastic web site for librarian-types in general. Along with thousands of important historic documents, there are also photographs, paintings, and even short films from throughout American history. Many of them are public domain, but not all. So in this post, I'll try to explain what public domain (PD) means, and how to tell if a given picture is in the PD or not.

If a work, such as a book or a photo, is in the public domain, that means that no one holds the copyright on it. You can do whatever you want with it. Download it, alter it, sell it, use it in an ad, whatever, it's up to you. The only thing you can't do with it is claim copyright on it, because it's not copyrightable; that's the nature of PD. PD images are the freest of the free, and I love them.

There are only three ways that an image could be in the public domain. (These rules work for other types of files too, such as documents or movies.)
  1. If an image is old enough, its copyright may have expired, putting it in the PD. But it has to be pretty old. Assuming the picture was made in the USA, its only in the PD if it was created or first published before January 1, 1923. So this photo of the Deleware flood is PD, since it was taken in 1913, but this photo of the result of a hurricane is copyrighted, and if you use it, the copyright holder can sue you.
  2. If an image was made by an organization that cannot legally claim copyright, then the image is automatically in the PD. This is pretty much limited to the US Federal Government, or the California State Government. So this official Whitehouse photo is in the public domain, but this one, taken by the Associated Press, is not.
  3. If the copyright owner of the image expressly releases it in to the public domain, then it's in the PD. If you want to release something of your into the PD, simply state on the document somewhere that you release it into the PD, and link to the Creative Commons public domain license. It's pretty easy. All the text on this site, for instance, is released into the public domain.
Now, many people have the mistaken impression that if a photo is widespread and available from many locations, it must be public domain. That, sadly, just ain't so. You may love an image, and you might see it all over the web, but unless it fits one of those three situations above, it's copyrighted, and you can't use it without getting sued.

There are some images, however, where someone still owns the copyright, but the terms for reuse are pretty generous. I'll describe some of these so-called "free licenses" in a later post. For now, have fun digging around the Library of Congress for diamonds in the rough.



Greetings, adoring fans.

This blog is set up to provide you with resources to find free images. By free, I generally mean public domain, although I will also provide ways to find images released under free licenses, such as the GFDL, Creative Commons licenses, et cetera. I'll explain all these licenses in a later post.

The best place to find free images, hands down, is the Wikimedia Commons. It's the official image repository for Wikipedia, among other sites. All (well, most) images are tagged with their copyright status, source, and are categorized for easy searching. To find public domain images, for instance, look up Category:Public domain. To find free images of Notre Dame, look up Notre Dame. Et cetera. The best part is, you can upload any free images you find to it, so if you like any images I point you to in this blog, please, feel free to upload them to the Commons.

I'll also provide commentary on copyright law, specifically as it refers to images. I'm personally a fan of the ideas of Lawrence Lessig and Jessica Litman, and I encourage you to read their works for an insightful analysis of the state of copyright law today and what should be done about it.

One more thing; although I discuss international copyright issues here, I'm an American, and I focus on United States law. If you have questions about your particular situation, e-mail me, and I'll try to be helpful. I'm reachable at gmail.com, where my account name is my name, MichaelWaddell.

I hope you find some useful information here. I'll try to add links and new content every couple of days, so check back often.

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All information on this site is correct to the best I can determine; however, nothing on this page should be construed as legal advice, and I cannot be liable for any damages if this information is inadvertantly incorrect.