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What is a Public Domain Image?
First let’s define public domain, then we’ll get into public domain images. The public domain is generally defined as consisting of works that are either ineligible for copyright protection or with expired copyrights. There is no permission whatsoever needed to copy or use any public domain works. If a book, image, song, movie, or artwork is in the public domain, then it is no longer protected by intellectual property laws (copyright, trademark, or patent laws)—this means that it’s free for you to use without permission. Basically, you (the public) own it and you can do whatever the heck you want to do with it! Pretty sweet, right?
So, how do you know what specifically is considered in the Public Domain? Well, there are laws in place that govern what is considered to be in the public domain. These laws differ from country to country, and sometimes change. Today we will only be discussing the laws for works produced in the U.S. here is a map that covers the copyright laws for the rest of the world). The easiest way to know if something is in the public domain is to know when it was published. Any work published in the United States before 1923 is in the public domain. Anything after 1923 starts to get complicated. For instance, any works published before 1964 where copyrights were not renewed, are consider to be public domain. (Renewal was a requirement for works published before 1978.) Some works fell into the public domain because they were published without a copyright, which was a requirement for works published in the U.S. before March 1, 1989. Works produced after 1989 are automatically protected and the copyright is an automatic right and does not require the author to file special paperwork. Some works are in the public domain because the owner gave them to the public relinquishing copyright protection. Last but not least, any works produced by the government are considered to be in the public domain. To be precise, any work prepared by an officer or employee of the federal government as part of that person’s official duties. Here is a link that breaks it down a little better for you.