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What are public domain images?

by Jan Haby  |  April 9, 2020

4 min. read
A woman takes a photo with her smart phone.

Visual media is a big help when creating professional materials, such as presentations or blog posts. A large percentage of the visual media available online is copyright protected, however, whereas works in the public domain are not. This article helps you identify what public domain media is and how to recognize it.

What is public domain?

If a work is part of the public domain, it means that it is available to anyone for any purpose. A public domain image may therefore be used as the user sees fit. This includes not only reproductions but also adaptations, modifications and distributions of the original image. Although there is no formal requirement to do so, it is still considered good manners to indicate the original source. This is especially true if the basis for a creative alteration is a well and widely known work of art.

A woman uses a tablet for her bird pictures.
Public domain images are free to use.

In contrast, any non-public domain work usually has copyright protection and requires a license to use. Copyright encompasses several rights, which allow the copyright holder to reproduce the work, distribute copies and display the work. The copyright begins at the time of creation and requires no separate registration.

It is important to observe the copyright unless one wishes to risk copyright infringement, which means possibly facing expensive legal ramifications by the copyright holder or creator.

When are works and images considered public domain?

First of all, there exists no globally binding or valid international copyright law. Individual countries have different ways of addressing the issue of a copyright-protected work. Most countries subscribe to the ideas of the Berne convention, which protects artistic works. All signatory nations agree to honor foreign copyright regulations as though they were their own.

A public domain word grouping.
Copyright is a limited concept due to international digital expansion.

Furthermore, the universally understood copyright duration extends from the creation of the specific work throughout the creator’s remaining lifetime plus an additional fifty years after their death. This number is a bare minimum and individual countries extended this period.

Similar to the concept of copyright, the idea of a work being part of the public domain also varies depending on local legislation. The US and their respective international counterparts understand the terms ‘copyright’ and ‘public domain’ differently. However, a basic agreement exists – a work is considered public domain if one of the following applies:

  • The work is not eligible for copyright. This includes, for instance, anything that does not rely on an act of human creativity, pure facts or (by their own definition) any work created by a US government authority.
  • The copyright of the respective work has expired. For the US, this includes anything published anywhere around the world before January 1st, 1923.
  • The initial creator transferred the work into the public domain. This goes for any image licensed under the Creative Commons CC designation.
A magnifying glass with the copyright logo.
Determine if images and other works are public domain or protected by copyright before using them.

Telltale signs for protected images

A visual medium is either a public domain image or it isn’t, there are no options in between. To know when it is safe to use an image, one can rely on several indicators. For instance, if you yourself are the creator it’s obviously safe. Also, images may already whether it’s public domain or free to use, such as a Creative Commons designation. For all others, they require some research.

There are several distinct ways to indicate an existing copyright, informing users that the image in question is not public domain. The most obvious method is image watermarking, which is employed to deter any unauthorized use of the image. The same goes for the second indicator, a clearly discernible copyright symbol in the image. Also, there might be information about the ownership or the original source displayed or appended to the image. Additionally, an official copyright register might list the image. Finally, if you want to be on the safe side, use the reverse image search of Google.

A keyboard with a copyright key.
Watermarking is one of several ways to indicate image copyrights.

If you create the pictures, images or visual content from scratch, you’re automatically the copyright holder. The same goes for any photographs you take – they are yours to do with as you please. You could register the copyright to your work just to be sure. Furthermore, you could include this information in the metadata.

Imagery and visuals help you make a more compelling argument, draw attention to or illustrate standpoints in your creative works. While copyrighted works should adhere to their respective licenses, images from the public domain don’t need explicit permission. However, research helps teams make clear determinations whether images are free to use. Use a digital asset management to simplify research and protect assets.