Feeling Lost: A Brief Overview of Copyright, Fair Use, Creative Commons + 6 Sources for Public Domain Photos

Copyright can be a confusing and frustrating concept, but it’s something that bloggers and other writers need to be aware of.

When a person creates a text, drawing or other work of art, that person owns the copyright on it. He or she does not need to complete any documentation or register the work. Copyright is automatic.

Resources for helping you to understand copyright

For an overview of copyright, check Copyright Kids. It provides clear and thorough explanations of the details of copyright in the US. Most English-speaking countries have similar legislation regarding copyright.

The Copyright Basics page on the site answers most key questions on the topic.

What about Fair Use?

Many people run into problems because of the concept of ‘Fair Use’ of copyrighted material.

Fair Use is based on the idea that copyrighted materials can be used for the purposes of critiquing or providing commentary on the work. The concept provides some balance between the rights of the creator of the work to protect that work, and the rights of other people to discuss and debate it publicly.

This area of intellectual property law is sticky and further complicated by the fact that Fair Use laws can be significantly different from country to country.

The following website provides information about Fair Use policy in the US:

Fair Use – Stanford University Libraries

Another useful resource for bloggers:

Legal Guide for Bloggers – from the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Understanding Creative Commons and Public Domain

 When creators license their works with Creative Commons, they retain copyright but give other people the opportunity to copy, distribute and use those works for some purposes. 

There are six different types of CC Licences, and each allows different levels of usage. All licences require attribution: in other words, if you use the work, you must give credit to the person who created it.

When you use CC resources, remember to check the license details to ensure that your intended use of the work matches the terms of the licence.

When a work has entered the public domain, or when creators designate their works as public domain, those works can be used and adapted freely without attribution.

Some designated public domain works to state that the works cannot be used ‘stand-alone’. A photo with this restriction, for example, could not be printed and sold by itself as a work of art. It must be used as part of another creative work. Inserting the photo into a website would be an appropriate example.

Public domain works can be freely adapted and changed. They can provide a good source of photos and illustrations for bloggers.

If you are using public domain images on your site:

 Using Google images is not the best way to source public domain photos and illustrations. The original version of a work may be in the public domain, but it is possible that the digitized version of that image can be considered copyrighted, depending on what has been done to the work.

Some sources for public domain images:

Wikipedia: Public domain image resources – a list of resources

PD Photo – there are many photos in different categories, but check the license before using

MorgueFile – free public domain stock photos

Bigfoto – use of these photos requires a link to the site somewhere on your site or blog, or a Facebook like

Library of Congress – American Memory lots of vintage photos and illustrations

Liam’s Pictures from Old Books – many beautiful illustrations from rare books

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