If everything has a copyright, what can I use?
There are many ways to use copyrighted works for learning and teaching, including applying the fair use law, but for now we are going to focus on the use of media without asking permission.
Where can I find media that I already have permission to use?
First, let’s explore the concept of the public domain. The public domain is the collection of all expressive works for which no one owns the copyright—or to look at it another way, the collection of works which everyone owns! It is a wellspring of knowledge, culture, and creative growth.
A work, online or not, is only in the public domain if its term of copyright protection is over, or if it never met the requirements for copyright protection in the first place.
Here’s a couple examples:
- Copyright is over—In the U.S., the only sure-bet works where copyright has ended are those that were published in the U.S. before 1923. Many works that were published in other countries prior to 1923 are still covered by copyright in the U.S. And it’s worth noting that it is entirely possible for a work to be in the public domain in one country, and still covered by copyright in another! Nevertheless, copyright has also ended for many works that were published more recently—even as late as the 1960s and 1970s—see the resources below for more information on all the details!
- Copyright never existed—All works created by the U.S. federal government (and federal employees in the course of their work) are in the public domain in the U.S. from the moment of their creation—there is no copyright, in the U.S., in U.S. federal government works.
Works in the public domain may be used freely by anyone, for any purpose, without copyright permission from anyone—because no one owns exclusive rights in these works.
Are there any other places to find media that I can use, like music?
Another way to find media is by searching for items that have the Creative Commons license. Creative Commons is both an organization, and a movement in response to expansive copyright protection. Using Creative Commons Licenses, artists and creators can proactively make their work available for public use, under specific conditions.
Creative Commons is not an alternative to copyright—it’s just an option of a different way to share works, and it fundamentally relies on copyright—you must own a copyright in a work in order to make it available under a Creative Commons license.
You can use CC-licensed materials as long as you follow the license conditions.
- Wikimedia Commons
- Flickr (filter by creative commons license)
- Some social media sites like YouTube share a list of music tracks that you can use freely without asking permission. You can check out YouTube’s list of songs and permissions here.
If I cite the image, I can use it, right?
It is always important to give attribution to a creator of a work, but that doesn’t change the permission to use the work. If you use work in the public domain or with a Creative Commons license (and following the license), you don’t have to worry about asking permission. Just use the media and cite it to give credit where credit is due.
You may know how to cite an author for a research paper, but how do you cite a photo or video? Some organizations like Creative Commons and WikiMedia Commons share a preferred citation, but you can also look at APA and MLA for guidance. For example, here is an ideal attribution of a CC-licensed image:
“Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco” by Timothy Vollmer is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Do you want to use an image that isn’t in the public domain or Creative Commons? That is when fair use part of copyright comes in! Complete the next module to learn about fair use.