Public Domain

In the previous issue, we teed up the idea that all graphics (or any content) on the web are not necessarily fair game for re-use. There are a number of myths about which and when graphics can be used, many of which fall under the heading of “public domain.”

First of all, we are not a law firm so nothing in this article should be considered legal advice. This article includes some of the guidelines we’ve collected from the web and conversations with people who should know. But if you are thinking about using a graphic for your own purposes, we suggest you check with a lawyer. In other words, if you get in any trouble following or ignoring the advice in this article, it is not our fault.

If you are still reading, let’s take a look at public domain. Public domain is content that is not protected by copyright. Either the copyright has expired or, for some reason, the work is not eligible for copyright.

Eligibility can be complicated though, because the rules have changed over time. You have to look at when the work was created, who created it, and when it was published (and if it was published). The more we looked into this, the more confused we became. Once we got sufficiently confused, we built a diagram to clarify it. Click on the image below for a larger version.

To read the diagram, just follow the flow from the top. For example, if something was published before 1923, you can freely copy it. If it was not published, you have to wait 120 years after the work was created. If it was published after 1923, continue down the tree. The bottom line is that the intent is for works not to enter the public domain during the author’s lifetime.


Of course an author can always decline to copyright their work and put it directly into the public domain. You will occasionally find things like this on Wikimedia.

Chart aside, public domain is really not that complicated. The real challenge is “fair use.” We may discuss that category of work in a future issue. As a preview, fair use includes only guidelines but no hard and fast rules. To actually get a solid decision on fair use, it has to come from a judge… and, let’s face it, nobody wants that 😉


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