Copyright in the Digital Classroom: Public Domain

The first U.S. Federal copyright law was passed in 1790, and it granted ownership rights to creators of books, maps, and charts for a specified amount of time.  Copyright law has changed over time, and can be very confusing, but the purpose is always the same:  to protect the rights of an individual to make a living from her/his creative work.  Currently, law states that anything created after 1989 does not require the copyright symbol.  Ownership rights are automatically assumed for the creator.  However, ownership rights aren’t forever.  When a copyright has expired, unless there are special circumstances, works are considered to be in the “public domain” and are free to for use.


Let’s take a quick minute to talk about those “special circumstances”.  Sometimes countries will grant what’s called a perpetual copyright.  For example, the Authorized King James Version of the Bible holds a perpetual copyright in the United Kingdom, so its copyright doesn’t expire.  Sometimes, copyright holders will transfer copyright upon their death.  An example of this is the play Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie.  Although the copyright has expired, rights were transferred to the Great Ormond Street Hospital.  This means that royalties must be paid to the hospital anytime the play is performed in the United Kingdom for as long as the hospital exists.  For the most part, though, copyrights expire, and then the works can be used for your classroom, or any, purposes.

In the United States, the expiration of copyright is dependent on when the work was created and if it was published or not.  Works published/created before January 1923 is considered to be in the public domain due to expired copyright.  Anything published between 1923 and 1978, copyright is active for 95 years from the first publication date.  Anything published after 1978 is protected under copyright for 70 years after the death of the author.  Anything created by the United States government is automatically placed into the public domain.  This chart was helpful to me in writing this post.

Works in the public domain are free for any type of use, commercial, educational, etc.  Many people even create a derivative piece from a work in the public domain by adding a Foreward, inserting new graphics or images, or adding commentary.  That derivative work can then be copyrighted and sold.  So what’s in the public domain now?  Think:  Shakespeare, classic novels, art, and more!


So where can you find works that are in the public domain?  Here are some of my favorite resources:

Public Domain Review:  According to the site, they’re goal is to provide exposure to the “surprising, strange, and beautiful” works within the public domain to bring awareness to the breadth and commonalities of our shared cultural commons.  This is by far my favorite, and I HIGHLY recommend you spend some time poking around.  My favorites are the animated gifs created with public domain images.

National Gallery of Art:  Provides access to classic works of art that are now in the public domain.

Smithsonian Institution Public Domain Images:  Link to the Smithsonian’s Flickr page.

New York Times Public Domain Archives

Project Gutenberg: Collection of public domain electronic books that can be downloaded and read in multiple formats.

Librivox: Collection of public domain audio books

Prelinger Archives:  Collection of advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films.

Want to know more about Copyright in the Digital Classroom?  Check out these other posts in the series:

Fair Use

Creative Commons

Copyright, Class Websites, and Student Projects