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A guide to current copyright regulations, fair use, and the public domain.

Where is the Public Domain?

"The public domain is not a place. A work of authorship is in the 'public domain' if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner."

(U.S. Copyright Office Definitions; emphasis added) 

"A work enters the public domain on the first of the year following the expiration of its copyright term" (Cornell), which is now 95 years in length. As copyright law has been amended several times in order to extend copyright protection, creators who so desire can opt to put their work into the PD immediately, often through the use of Creative Commons licenses.

What is and is not in the public domain as of January 1 of this year (Cornell)

This Image is in the Public Domain!

Detail from Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as the ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642
Source: Rijksmuseum (click for full image)

Use These! Works in the Public Domain

Works that are in the public domain are free to reuse and repurpose. These works enter the public domain once their term of copyright protection has expired; more recent works can also be designated for public use at their time of creation.

Images in the Public Domain

These images want to be used and you should most definitely do so, but please cite the source institution. Though many of the public domain images are long out of copyright, citing the source institution (that is, the museum/library/etc. wherein the original image/material is held) makes it easier for others to track down the originals of the images you use. If you use any of these images in a paper, you must include a full citation of the image in your list of works cited:

  • MLA (Purdue OWL)
  • APA (Landmark College)
  • Chicago (Colgate University)


The information presented here is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.