Understanding Public Domain Images Copyright and Uses

Public Domain images

Public domain images is generally defined as a database or collection of artistic works that are not copyright-protected. Public domain works do not require any license or fees before they can be used by anyone for commercial or non commercial reasons. They are not restricted by any intellectual property laws and so they are free to be used by the public without needing permission.

Public domain works can be in any form such as but not limited to books, songs, essays, music, poems and images. Public domain images, however, can be in a form of a drawing, painting, photograph, or graphical illustration.

If you want a quick understanding without reading through the complete text below, take a look at the infographics below.

“The state of belonging or being available to the public as a whole, and therefore not subject to copyright.”

Public Domain Copyrights
Click on the image to read more about Public Domain Images Copyright

Understanding the three categories of Public Domain works[1]

There are many reasons and conditions to consider before an artwork enters the public domain. It is very important for everyone to know about these information especially when they plan to use or reproduce something that they do not own.

There are three main categories of public domain works:

  1. Works that automatically enter the public domain upon creation, because they are ineligible for copyrights:
  • Titles, names, short phrases, slogans, symbols
  • Ideas, facts, genres, themes, theories
  • Processes and systems
  • Government works and documents;

2. Works that have been contributed by their author/creator to the public domain;

3. Works that have entered the public domain because their copyright has expired.

A work is protected by copyright as soon as it is fixed in a “tangible medium of expression” — whether by writing it down, recording it, pressing the shutter button, hitting “save,” etc. Neither a copyright notice nor registration is required for copyright protection.[2]

General length of Copyright[3]

Copyright term is the length of time copyright subsists in a work before it passes into the pubic. The length and the life span of the existing copyright varies in different jurisdiction. It can depend on several factors including type of work (e.g. musical composition, novel, sound recording), whether the work has been published or not, and whether the work was created by an individual or a corporation.

In most countries, the default copyright term is the life of the author or creator plus either 50 or 70 years. While in the United States, the copyright term for most existing works is a fixed number of years after the creation or publication date. You should always do some research on the validity of copyright term in your country before using them.

Third category, works that may have already expired their Copyrights[4]

Having mentioned the different types or categories of works in the public domain, let us now learn more about the third category – the works that have expired their copyrights. In this section, we have already simplified which works are currently in the public domain.

Works registered of first published in the United States:-

  • All works published in the U.S. before 1923 have expired their copyright, therefore, are in the public domain and free to use.
  • All works published from 1924 through 1963 with a copyright notice but was not renewed are in the public domain.
  • All works published without a copyright notice from 1924 through 1977 are in the public domain due to failure to comply to required formalities.
  • All works published without a copyright notice from 1978 through March 1, 1989, and without subsequent registration within 5 years, are in the public domain and must be free to use.
  • All works prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government anytime as part of that person’s official duties are in the public domain in the United States.
  • Works produced after 1989 are automatically protected and the copyright is an automatic right and does not require the author to file special paperwork.[5]

Works first published outside the US by foreign national or US citizens living abroad

  • All works published before 1923 outside the United States by foreign nationals or American citizens living abroad are in the public domain.
  • All works published without compliance with U.S. formalities from 1923 through 1977, and in the public domain in its source country as 1 of January 1996, are in the public domain in the United States.
  • All works published from 1 January 1978 – 1 March 1989 without copyright notice, and in the public domain in its source country as of 1 January 1996, are in the public domain.
  • All works published after 1 March 1989 in a country with which the United States does not have copyright relations under a treaty, are in the public domain.
  • SPECIAL CASE: All works published prior to 27 May 1973 by a national of Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan in either country, are in the public domain.


Special cases, determining the copyright expiration of other works

While the above information states which works are already in the public domain and no longer protected by copyright law, let us discuss in this section the copyright term for the rest of the works, published or not.

Never published and never registered works

  • The copyright term for the unpublished works is the ‘life of the author PLUS 70 years’.
  • The copyright term for the unpublished anonymous and pseudonymous works, and works made for hire (corporate authorship) is 120 years from the date of creation.
  • The copyright term for the unpublished works when the date of the author’s death is not known is also 120 years from the date of creation.

Works registered or first published in the United States

  • The copyright term for works published without notice, but with subsequent registration within 5 years, from 1978 to 1 March 1989, is 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
  • The copyright term for works published in 1923 through 1963 with notice AND the copyright was renewed, is 95 years after publication date.
  • The copyright term for works published in 1964 through 1977 with notice is 95 years after the publicate date.
  • The copyright term for works created in 1978 and so, is 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.

There are also creators who dedicate their works to Public Domain[7]

We learned that one reason why other works are unprotected by copyright law, is because their creator dedicated them to the public domain.

One way (in the United States) to dedicate his own work to the public domain is through CC0. CC0 is a tool under the Creative Commons that enables writers, authors, artists, or other creators to give up all, or to the fullest extent allowed by the law, his rights involving his/her own work. Once the creator or the subsequent owner of a work applies CC0 to his work, the work is no longer his or hers in any meaningful sense.

By then, the work enters the public domain and will be available to the public for any purpose, including commercial use, subject to other laws or rights other may have in the work like how the work is used. But most definitely, the creator will no longer be allowed to claim the work to be his or hers once the CC0 is applied to such work since the rights will all waived.

For detailed instructions and rules on how to dedicate a work by its creator, please refer to Creative Commons CC0, and for other information related to it, you may check CC0 FAQs.

If this is so, why some websites claim Copyrights to Public Domain material?

Jason Mazzone, who coined the term “copyfraud”, described it as claiming copyright ownership of public domain material, and imposition by a copyright owner of restrictions beyond what the law allows.

Copyfraud refers to false copyright claims by individuals or institutions with respect to content that is in the public domain.[8] They are wrongful claims since the works in the public domain are unprotected by any copyright, and are free for public use.

Some nice rules to using Public Domain Images….

While we can freely use public domain images for any purpose including commercial purposes, it is very important that we know what comes along with it. Use of some works, such as ideas and symbols, may be restricted by other laws, such as patent, trademark, or trade secret. So make sure that we responsibly use images that are in the public domain.

Model Release encourages that identifiable people should not appear in a bad light or in a way that they may find offensive, unless they give their consent. For an instance, would you like to see your face in an advertising poster without being asked for permission? For everyone, we must give our approval for public usage of our image.

Same thing goes for Property Release. Before a company or anyone use the image or photo of your property, the property owner must release his or her consent first.

Also, do not suggest endorsement of products, services, etc. by depicted people or organizations. For an instance, do not use an image or logo of FBI and place it next to your own product in a way that suggests that FBI would recommend the product.


We all can benefit from the idea of Public Domain for many different reasons ranging from our personal and creativity purpose up to the commercial and profitable uses. But with good benefit comes with good and reasonable rules.

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[1] http://www.teachingcopyright.org/handout/public-domain-faq

[2] https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2012/faqs

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_term

[4] http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm

[5] http://viintage.com/public-domain-images/

[6] http://www.publicdomainday.org/node/39

[7] https://wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/CC0_FAQ#What_is_CC0.3F

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyfraud

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