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Librarian Web Permissions SOP

Check for Public Domain

There is a huge misconception that anything publicly available on the internet is in the public domain. Availability on the internet and public domain have very little to do with each other, and a lot of material on the internet is not free to use, despite it being accessible to everyone.

In short, public domain refers to content that can be used freely without obtaining permission from the creator. For the purposes of this guide, public domain refers to the copyright status of content in the United States. Content covered under non-US public domain may need additional review as the definition of public domain differs in other countries.

There are a few general rules you can use to determine if a resource falls under public domain:

  • U.S. federal government works (although works written by non-governmental authors with federal funding and works produced by state and local governments may be copyright protected)
  • Ideas and facts
  • Works created before copyright laws (the Bible)
  • Works with expired copyrights (Moby Dick)
  • Works with no original authorship
  • Works governed by early copyright statutes that failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection (i.e., notice, registration, and renewal requirements)
  • Scientific principles, theorems, mathematical formulae, laws of nature
  • Scientific and other research methodologies, statistical techniques, and educational processes
  • Laws, regulations, judicial opinions, and legislative reports
  • Words, names, numbers, symbols, signs, rules of grammar and diction, and punctuation

Next steps:

Before you start a review of the website's copyright terms, review the page and/or content for displayed copyright restrictions, including:

  • Creative Content licenses
  • language that specifically permits linking to its site
  • language that permits for-profit or commercial use
  • a federal .gov domain (with no third-party content)

Public Domain Websites Resources

There are so many websites dedicated to providing lists of public domain works that it is impossible to list them all. Consider using a browser to search for the type of material you want (i.e., Early American literature and public domain), or use one listed below:

Tools to Determine Copyright

Use these tools from the American Library Association to help you determine if the work you want to use is still covered by copyright or is now considered public domain.

Public Domain Slider

Copyright Genie