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Public Domain and Creative Commons: A Guide to Works You Can Use Freely

Many images are subject to copyright too. Just because you can access an image on the internet, does not mean you are legally permitted to use that image in your academic work.

Fortunately, there are great sources for non-copyright images that have been released to the public domain, under a creative commons license, or are open access.

Public Domain and Creative Commons: A Guide to Works You Can Use Freely


Copyright, Public Domain, Licensing, and Intellectual Property

Here is a helpful list of resources from the University of Denver, pertaining to copyright, licensing, intellectual property, and other related topics for legally and ethically using materials for teaching and research. 

Fair use

  • Fair Use affords the public the right to to use portions of copyrighted materials in some circumstances-- usually for comment, criticism or parody--freely and without permission of the copyright holder.
  • Fair use of an image does not mean that you don't have to cite the source of the image, you still need to cite the source!
  • Fair use law is somewhat vague and subjective, and cases are decided on an individual basis.
  • Educational fair use is not specifically outlined in Copyright Law, but guidelines have been developed that provide educational institutions with some direction. See Educational Fair Use Guidelines for Digital Images.


Image and text used with permission from Jill Markgraf

Public Domain

Images that are in the public domain do not require permission to be used because they are not protected by copyright. According to Stanford University: 

The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.

An important wrinkle to understand about public domain material is that, while each work belongs to the public, collections of public domain works may be protected by copyright. If, for example, someone has collected public domain images in a book or on a website, the collection as a whole may be protectable even though individual images are not. You are free to copy and use individual images but copying and distributing the complete collection may infringe what is known as the “collective works” copyright. Collections of public domain material will be protected if the person who created it has used creativity in the choices and organization of the public domain material. This usually involves some unique selection process, for example, [an art scholar compiling a book—The Greatest Paintings Claude Monet.]

There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
  • copyright law does not protect this type of work.