Public Domain Resources

by Krishna on January 22, 2009


I have previously written about Creative Commons and taking advantage of free resources. Something that I didn’t clearly express was the availability of public domain resources, which do not have any copyright as opposed to copyleft or Creative Commons licenses. Public domain materials are not owned or controlled by any person or entity, and can be used by anyone to use for any function.

Project Gutenberg contains texts that are in the public domain (for the most part). So, in addition to being a passive consumer, you can re-distribute the information, as-is or in a different format. Project Gutenberg also contains images from published books whose copyright has expired. My previous post uses both the text and the image from a Mark Twain book.

Wikimedia has many public domain photos, illustrations, sound clips and videos. While many of these are historic items that have lost copyright protections, others are more recent and have been uploaded by users deliberately placing them in the public domain. Unfortunately, a few users have uploaded media content using Creative Commons and, in some cases, the origin of the media item is unclear. So you may have to read the copyright information carefully instead of using the media file blindly.shuttle

Barring some exceptions, most work done by United States government is in the public domain. This includes some excellent resources such as The World Factbook, by the Central Intelligence Agency: This is not just an online resource. The CIA provides a downloadable file. Also take a look at photos and videos of planets, stars, space shuttles and much more by the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). There are also many good resources on the Library of Congress website, but they do a terrible job of providing the copyright information.

Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of US and other public domain resources. has another list of potential public domain content here.

So take advantage of these resources. Although I like using Creative-Commons-licensed photos (from Flickr and elsewhere), you still have to worry about attribution, sharing and whether you are allowed to modify the images (like I did here) and use them commercially. Public domain resources have none of those restrictions.

It is a tragedy that current copyright law makes automatic public domain for copyrighted works virtually impossible. The first US copyright law only allowed for 14 years of copyright with the ability to renew for another 14 years. Today, it is 75 years from publication or 50 years after the death of the author. This law benefits only a very small fraction of the population. Most published works bring few monetary benefits to the author or creator. Unfortunately, they will remain in obscurity because no one can use their content.

I think it would be a much better state of affairs if copyright expires if the creator has not made any money off the work for 5 years, or has not renewed the copyright on the work. So, if some corporations want to make money off Mickey Mouse, let them. But why apply the same principle to every single work out there? Publishers should also encourage more copyright holders to release their obscure, non-selling works, which could arouse greater interest in the creator and perhaps actually generate more profits for the author and the publisher.

That is the future. Who will get there first?

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