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Introduction: Public Domain
The public domain consists of works that are ineligible for copyright protection, works with expired copyrights, or those that have been placed in the public domain by the creator. These materials are owned by no one and are considered "public property." As such, they are available for anyone to use without permission.
For more information about how to discern if something is in the public domain in the United States, see:
Remember: just because something is in the public domain doesn't mean you shouldn't cite it. Always give proper credit to your source!
In this guide, you will find:
Finding Works in the Public Domain
Books | Images | Music | Government Documents
The following resources can help you find works in the public domain in the United States. Not all of the items contained in these websites are in the public domain. It is your responsibility to read the terms of service for each site and to ensure that the work you use is not bound by copyright - or other intellectual property (including trademark) - restrictions.
Books held by the Davidson College Library may or may not be in the public domain. For help in determining if the book you want to use is in the public domain, click here.
- Google Books
Contains both books in the public domain and those that are copyrighted.
If Google has determined that a book is in the United States public domain, a user can view the entire text and download a PDF copy. For books that are still copyrighted, a user can often view a limited preview or a snipped view. For more information, see What you'll see when you search on Google Books and Using Google Books.
- Project Gutenberg
Contains free electronic books, but not all books are in the public domain. Check for copyright information in the record and read the license information here.
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Images (Clipart, Photographs, Illustrations, etc.)
- American Memory: United States Library of Congress
A collection of over 9 million primary source documents and archival materials related to American history and culture. There are 66 collections containing photos and prints; these can be browsed or searched as a group or individually.
NOTE: Not all images in American Memory are copyright-free. Each collection has its own copyright statement, so be sure to check these before using any images from this site. For more information, see the Copyright and Primary Sources and Legal pages of this site.
- FDR Library: Digitized Historical Photographs
From the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, this site contains digitized photographs in three collections: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Great Depression and New Deal, and World War II. According to this site, "Unless copyright information is stated in the image caption, all of the digitized material available online from the FDR Library Archives belongs in the public domain." See the Citation and Copyright page for more information.
This site from Yahoo! contains images uploaded by users from around the world.
NOTE: Many of the images found on this site are NOT copyright free. However, some people do make their photos available for use by others through a Creative Commons license. Be sure to check each flicr photo to see if it provides a license and, if so, what its restrictions are. You may read more in the flickr FAQs.
Contains images to download for use on Web sites and for non-commercial print purposes; requires credit of source. For more information, see the Educational Policy and Free Use Rules pages.
- Gimp-Savvy: A Community Indexed Photo Archive
Contains over 27,000 free photos and images from three sources: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Nationall Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For information about fair use of these images, click here.
- Google Images
A search engine familiar to many looking for images, this site pulls images from across the Internet.
NOTE: Many of the images found on this site are NOT copyright free. To find images for use by the public, do the following:
(1) Choose "Advanced search image."
(2) Select "Labeled for reuse."
(3) Enter your search.
- New York Public Library Digital Gallery
Search for or browse through over 700,000 images from the New York Public Library's collection. According to the site, "[s]ome of the images in the Digital Gallery may be subject to third party rights such as copyright and/or rights of privacy/publicity." For more information, see the Library's Terms and Conditions.
- Old Book Illustrations
- Public Domain Image: Royalty-Free Stock Photo Directory
High resolution, royalty-free public domain images; a credit and link back to the site is requested.
See the Frequently Asked Questions for more information.
Repository for over 6,500 public domain photos. According to the site, "[a]ll pictures are free for commerical and personal use," but "[i]f you intend to use an image you find here for commercial use, please be aware that no model or property release was obtained and pictures featuring products should be used with care."
- United States Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC)
Contains catalog records for and digital images of images held by the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
NOTE: Many of the images found on this site are NOT copyright free. For information about which images do not have copyright restrictions, see the site's Copyright and Other Restrictions That Apply to Publication/Distribution of Images: Assessing the Risk of Using a P&P Image and Rights and Restrictions Information pages.
- U.S. History Images
- Other Resources
The library subscribes to some databases which make available images for educational, non-commerical use; many of these images are not in the public domain:
- AP Images
(1826 to present [photographs]; 1920 to present [audio clips]; 1990 to present [charts and maps]; 1997 to present [text]) A collection of over 2 million photographs, 1 million audio clips, 48,000 diagrams, charts, maps, and timelines, and 2.8 million news briefs from the Associated Press (AP). Updated daily.
Note: Only one person can search this database at any one time; if you are unable to login because this limit has been reached, please wait a few minutes and try again.
Photographs and graphics from the Archive cannot be sold, syndicated, loaned or used for advertising or for trade without the written consent of AP. In addition, users cannot republish any of the photographs on a Web page.
A collection of over 900,000 images in the areas of art, architecture, the humanities, and the social sciences; covers a wide range of cultures and time periods. See the Terms & Conditions of Use and the Permitted & Prohibited Uses for information about how you can use images from this database. Please note that images may only be shared with others authorized to access the Library; images may not be posted on unrestricted websites and printed copies may only be distributed to those with authorized access to the Library.
- CAMIO: The Catalog of Art Museum Images Online
A collection of over 95,000 images of fine and decorative artworks dating from prehistoric times to the present. Each image is licensed for non-commercial, educational use and can be used in class projects, in lectures, on course Web sites, and for other educational projects.
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Music (Sheet Music & Sound Recordings)
Music held by the Davidson College Library may or may not be in the public domain. For help in determining if the sheet music or sound recording you want to use is in the public domain, click here.
To find items in the public domain, you may want to search in the following sites:
- Art Song Central
Sheet music for singers and voice teachers, which can be browsed or searched by keyword, and is "produced from materials that is in the Public Domain in the United States." For more information about rights, see About Art Song Central.
From the Choral Public Domain Library, this wiki provides access to choral sheet music. All scores and text on the CPDL server are bound by the CPDL copyright license (but note that not all scores reside on the server). For additional copyright information, see Help: What copyright rules apply to CPDL scores?
- The Freesound Project
A collaborative database of audio snippets, samples, recordings, bleeps, etc., released under the Creative Commons Sampling License and for use as samples. All samples must be attrbuted. To read more about use restrictions, see the Rules and Legal pages.
- Petrucci Music Library (International Music Score Library Project)
Each score should have a copyright review code for Canada/USA/EU, which indicates copyright status. For more information about these codes, see the FAQs.
- Internet Archive Audio Collection
Contains free digital recordings, many uploaded by users. Not all sound files in the Internet Archive are copyright free; many of the artists still hold the copyright. For more information, see the FAQs.
- Project Gutenberg: Recorded Music
Contains clips of recorded music. Not all items are copyright free. Check the item's record for copyright status.
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Documents created by the United States federal government are not eligible for copyright protection. According to section 105 of the U.S. Copyright Law, "Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, but the United States Government is not precluded from receiving and holding copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise." Section 101 defines a U.S. government work" as a "work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person's official duties."
Please note that this rule does not necessarily apply to:
- state government documents
- documents created by foreign governments
- works contracted by the United States government
Since U.S. federal government documents are not copyrighted, they are in the public domain and can be used without seeking permission from the creator. As always, remember that is your responsibility to ensure that the document you're using is copyright-free.
To find federal government documents, see the Library's catalog.
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To read more about the public domain, see:
Please feel free to Ask a Librarian. You can stop by the reference desk, call us (704-894-2425), e-mail us, or text us; we're here to help you!
Library staff members cannot give legal advice. If you need legal advice, you should contact an intellectual property attorney.