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Public Domain and Creative Commons: A Guide to Works You Can Use Freely

Here is an in-depth guide to using public domain and Creative Commons materials for your theses, dissertations, publications, and other scholarly projects.

Are there materials I can freely use for my project?

So, you're looking for that perfect image, text excerpt, map, music score excerpt, photograph, movie, etc. for your thesis, dissertation, class, or publication. 

Consider using works in the public domain or works covered by a Creative Commons (CC) license.   

  • Public Domain works: You do not need to request permission or pay a license fee to use these works; and, for the most part, you can use these works in any way you wish because they are not covered by copyright law. 

  • Creative Commons licensed (CC) works- creators of these works allow certain uses under terms of a license-- some of which may be more compatible with academic projects.  The uses allowed by the CC license typically do not require you to request permission or pay a license fee.  

This tutorial will cover five main points in regards to the basics of finding and using materials in the public domain as well as those covered by Creative Commons licenses for academic projects:

(1) introduction to public domain and Creative Commons materials;
(2) how to tell if a work is in the public domain or covered by a Creative Commons license;
(3) sources to search for public domain and Creative Commons licensed works;
(4) a few potential problems with using public domain and/or Creative Commons licensed material; and
(5) sources for learning more about the public domain and Creative Commons licensed works.

A more comprehensive approach to public domain and CC materials can be found in many of the sources cited in this tutorial.  The intent of this tutorial is to provide you with basic information to begin using public domain and CC materials. 

Click on the tabs above to learn more about Public Domain and Creative Commons works.

If the material you wish to use is not in the public domain or covered by a Creative Commons license, you may also have some options under the copyright law to use copyrighted material without requesting permission including:

These copyright law exceptions to authors' exclusive rights have their limitations though.  If your uses fall outside of these limitations, you need to seek permission of the copyright owner in order to use the material in your project. 


Disclaimer: This tutorial on using public domain materials, Creative Commons licensed materials, and copyright law is provided for informational purposes only!  I am not a lawyer and cannot provide legal advice.  None of what you read in this tutorial should be construed as legal advice.  Should you require legal advice, please contact an attorney.