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Determining copyright status can be a difficult process. The resources on this page are intended as general guides. Please contact a librarian with any general questions you have about copyright (see the Ask a Librarian link in the right hand column); however, we strongly recommend that you contact John P. Scherer II, Associate General Counsel at UNCW (schererj@), with more specific questions or concerns.

Not all of the resources below are truly public domain resources. Many are offered under voluntary licenses or agreements, which change or limit the rights held by the copyright owner, or they are identified as royalty-free materials.


For an overview of copyright and issues related to education and fair use, Columbia University's Copyright Advisory Office is a good resource.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, states: "The Congress shall have power...To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries..."

Public Doman

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the public domain in two ways:

  • Land belonging to the public; common land.
  • The state or condition of belonging or being generally available to all, esp. through not being subject to copyright.

A good resource for general information on the public domain is Stanford University Library's Copyright & Fair Use Page, Welcome to the Public Domain.

Several timelines relating to when a work falls into the public domain are available:

This table presents The Growth Rate of the Public Domain, by Peter Jaszi, Professor of Law at American University, Washington College of Law.

Creative Commons

Licenses either limit or extend a copyright owner's exclusive rights. Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization, has created a spectrum of licenses intended to offer licenses that allow you to choose to "change your copyright terms from 'All Rights Reserved' to 'Some Rights Reserved.'" This does not mean that Creative Commons-licensed (CC-licensed) materials are in the public domain. To view the licenses, click on a link below:

Creative Commons also provides links to various content directories and search engines which can be helpful in finding CC-licensed works. Links to these directories are found below.

Manipulating Images

Image searching and sharing sites

Photo Sharing Sites

Search Engines

  • Search engines such as Google, Ask, and Yahoo all have image searches
  • Each search engine will yield different results. Don't always rely solely on Google
  • Try synonyms or translations
  • Also try searching for phrases such as "this document is in the public domain"

Map Tools

  • Google Earth's geographic web, Panoramio
  • Add paths and place markers, save image

Image Tools

  • Print Screen keyboard function - Captures screenshot to clipboard
  • Microsoft Publisher - allows user to "save picture as"
  • Microsoft Paint - Included with Windows, basic image modification, add text
  • Microsoft Office Picture Manager - included with Office, resize, brighten, crop, etc.
  • GIMP - GNU Image Manipulation Program, free, powerful, but complicated to learn
  • Clip art - Microsoft downloads

Other Public Domain Resources

*Not all materials listed on these sites are in the public domain. It is the responsibility of the individual using the material to determine copyright status.


Creative Commons Image Content Directory

Lists links to image directories collecting, in part or exclusively, CC-licensed images.

Wikipedia: Public Domain Image Resources

A variety of image directories, including many links to government agencies offering images in the public domain.

Wikipedia: Free Image Resources

Links to many stock-photo sites and related sites, not necessarily featuring images in the public domain, but many are royalty-free.

Other Ideas


Creative Commons Audio Content Directory

A collection of links to sites which index, in part or exclusively, CC-licensed audio material.


Audio books featuring books from the public domain, free to download and read by volunteers.


Recordings of music in the public domain, performed by individuals and college or community orchestras.

The Mutopia Project

Classical and contemporary sheet music, some in the public domain, some with CC-licenses. See also Project Gutenberg's The Sheet Music Project.

Other Ideas

  • Sheet music collections
  • Traditional songs or folk music created, or in existence before, 1923


Creative Commons Video Content Directory

A directory of CC-licensed moving images.

The Internet Archive

Digitized films here may be downloaded or accessed for free. Many of the digitized films in the Prelinger Archive, accessible through the Internet Artchive, are available for nearly unrestricted non-profit use; the Prelinger Archive contains many ephemeral films from 1927 and later.

Other Ideas

  • Special libraries
  • The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration has a list of finding aids for locating materials in Presidential libraries and other special collections


Creative Commons Text Content Directory

A list of texts and text collections with CC-licensed media.

Wikipedia: Public Domain Resources

Text-based public domain resources listed in the popular wiki.

Other Ideas

  • Books, newspapers, and magazines published earlier than 1923, or between the years 1923-1963 if copyright was not renewed (use the "advanced search" in Randall Library's Catalog to find materials published before a certain date)
  • Again, special libraries and archives will have many materials
  • While not public domain materials, there are several publishers and web sites featuring authors whose works are available for free download. See the Internet Archive's Text Archive for more information.

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