Public Domain, Free Use and Copyleft Media
It feels good to get free stuff. In fact that’s probably why many of us get on the Web in the first place. But behind the usual blogs and Web sites lies untold fortunes of free-use content, all available for you to use legally and with a clean conscience. All the resources you need are there, whether to explore literature spanning the human experience or to find thousands of photos to spice up any project. There are even sites to help you understand all the copyright snags you might encounter along the way.
There are hordes of that ubiquitous stuff called "content" on the Web for the taking. Photographs, literature, film, and music-everything you need to self-publish is online. But with such unprecedented free access to all that material, the risk of copyright infringement is more real than ever before. Luckily, in response to our insatiable desire for it, organizations, artists, and individuals are responding with what is called copyleft, or free-use content, designed to allow all the rest of us to use what they've created. For those few of us left without a law degree, many Web sites explain copyright, copyleft, and everything in between.
- Before you explore copyleft, take a minute to learn about copyright. Depending on your usage needs, copyright laws could be a non-issue due to "fair-use" laws.
- Beware. No known copyleft or free-use license allows you to claim another's work as your own.
- New, more liberal types of licenses are revolutionizing the self-publishing world, but free-use is not always a carte blanche. As you research further, keep these definitions in mind:
- Public domain: Any work in the public domain is completely free to use. You can download it, change it, use it in your own work, or even publish it as-is and sell it. It is everybody's property. Do with it as you please.
- Copyleft/open-content/free-use/Creative Commons/some rights reserved: these terms cover a broad spectrum of license types. While they generally are available to use in some manner, this can range from personal use such as free downloading, to any kind of use as long as you don't sell it outright.
- Copyright/all rights reserved: this is the traditional copyright standard. The creator has kept ownership of all usage rights. Except for fair-use, you must receive permission from the creator for any type of usage.
- Fair-use: this is the legally allowable usage for copyrighted material. It generally includes academic, citation, and quotation purposes, among others.
United States Copyright Office
's site will inform you of all the ins and outs of America's copyright code, from what you can copyright to what you can do with copyrighted content. So before you run to the left, take a look at what the copyright is all about.
's Copyright and Fair Use site provides all you need to know from a legal standpoint to navigate the sea of copyrighted material online and off.
' excellent site is the jumping-off point for anyone diving into the deluge of copyleft. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to making available for all artists free-use licenses that range from "all rights reserved" to "no rights reserved." Besides writing these licenses, Creative Commons supports a bevy of copyleft projects and acts as an activist arm for the copyleft movement to boot. Go to the "About" page for a crash course in their licenses and what they allow, or an easy-to-understand comic to explain it all.
's Public Domain entry will take you a bit further on the subject, attempting to explain some of the various copyright laws you'll encounter abroad.
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Ideally all the free-use content in the world would be accessible and searchable from one massive granddaddy of a site. Believe it or not, that is what a few organizations are attempting to create. While we're not yet there-not by a long shot-these sites have taken the first steps toward that end. They'll help you search and browse your way through a growing body of free-use content.
- Many Web sites, particularly broad ones such as these, have different criteria for searching free-use content. If you don't find what you want on one, try another.
- General free-use sites such as these are just that: general. Many other, more specialized sites exist. Check out the following sections if you have a more specific idea of what you're looking for.
- Free does not always mean free-use. Unless you're on a trusted Web site with a known license policy, always check the copyright of a specific work yourself. In the end you-and no one else-are responsible for what you use.
' in-house search engine provides an easy way to search for CC-licensed work using some of the Web's more common search engines. Clicking on the various tabs allows you to switch between different types of content searches, such as an image search with the Flickr tab or a video search using the Blip.tv tab. Two easy buttons allow you to filter either for work you can use for commercial projects or for that which you can modify yourself.
The Internet Archive
's collection of collections is a bit unwieldy, but the promise of substantial reserves lies behind the obscure interface. The organizing force behind much of the archiving and free-use movement, this site contains an enormous hodgepodge of archives and archiving tools. However, the legal status of the content is not always clear depending on which section of the site you're using. It can provide a good jumping-off point, but you might need to do a little detective work to learn the copyright status of many works here.
illustrates well the difference between free and free-use, housing a number of lists of sites offering free
content. Regardless, much free-use
content can be found here as well, particularly in the "free sound" and "free images" sections.
is the online arm of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. A large portion of the public domain and other free-use content is made up of government material, much of which can be accessed here.
With the spread of digital cameras, everyone has become a photographer-and photographers love to share their work. The amount of quality photography online is truly inspiring. Add to that the fabulous textures, graphics, and other images that hordes of artists have made available, and the Internet has become the greatest resource for visual media one could imagine. Whether you're making a family newsletter, an original piece of graphic art, a presentation to your boss, or building your own professional Web site, these sites contain the images to turn it into a visual treat.
- The most abundant content on the Web is images, and the sheer size of what's available can be daunting. Most image search engines offer advanced features to narrow the lot substantially.
- Image quality and resolution vary wildly. Just when you find that perfect image, you realize it's tiny or has awful resolution. Know what size and quality image you need before entering the fray, and focus your search accordingly.
- This may seem like common sense to most, but it must be said: even the most liberally licensed content usually prohibits you from using it for any defamation or libel, or in an offensive or hateful manner. Most archival sites also demand you not use their content to directly compete with them (such as on your own online photo-archive service).
For image indexes and archives ...
's searchable archives focus on quality. The simple and serene design of this Web site is telling of the artistically talented people involved, and the thumbnail search results offer a wealth of information on the available photographs. After registering for a free account you can make use of the Light boxes tool, which lets you store your favorite images and even send your Light boxes to other users. All images in MorgueFile's archive are covered by a site-specific (SS) license that allows for almost completely unrestricted use.
encompasses all the truly innovative ways the Internet lets you explore the visual world. A similar site to MorgueFile, it's the extras that elevate Image*After above the frenzy of free image and texture sites. The site's search results pages are supremely navigable, with magnified versions of the thumbnails appearing as you roll over them. If you delve further into the site, you'll be amazed by the power of its advanced searches. Don't care what your picture is of, but have an idea what it should feel like? Try out the abstract search function by specifying some general image criteria such as brightness, contrast, warmth, and organic-ness, and Image*After will try to find an image suited to the general feel of your project.
's growing site hosts the photographs of almost 10,000 users. Many of the photographs are of exceptional quality, and all are under one CC license or another. The site is solidly built and generally well designed, with roll-over photo information pop-ups for the thumbnails.
is a solid photo archive that is largely in the public domain. While not as extensive as Yotophoto's indexing, as sleek as MorgueFile design, or as innovative as Image*After's extras, the images kept on this site are generally very high quality, if a bit random in subject. All are taken by the creator of the site, so the style is pretty consistent throughout. Organization by geography makes this site rather useful if you're looking for pictures of a specific American locale.
's less extensive but high-quality photo archive is worth a look. Although you won't find everything here, the quality and consistency of format of these free-use images makes a stop worthwhile.
lists all the government agency photo archives available online. Most government images are in the public domain, however some are not. The site makes no effort to help clear up the copyright issues in this regard, so check at the local site for each photograph before using any.
For tools and services ...
provides a handy online photo-editing tool that's built around simplicity and ease of use, as well as fun features like the oil-painting button that turns your photograph into a(nother) piece of art.
is based on the premise that perhaps the photo you need just doesn't exist yet. This infant site aims to fix that by taking requests for specific custom photographs, to be fulfilled by a growing legion of volunteer photographers in a number of countries and locales. You might not always get what you want, but if you just can't get to Mr. Pickle's Sandwich Shop for that all-important green profile, rest assured that you can find a photo of the place here.
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Though visual and audio media certainly rule the Web these days in terms of sheer quantity, there's still plenty of literary and textual content to be had online. A veritable race is on to get the last few thousands years of written language input and uploaded, and the options for how to navigate this growing body of revived literature are many. All literature written before 1923, and much of it since, is in the public domain. Furthermore, much of the textual content online is available as free-use material. These sites will help you find that morsel of language or feast of philology you crave.
- Photography is new, the written word is old. The online community is playing catch-up when it comes to literature, so patience is sometimes needed. If you can't find what you want, chances are it will be online soon.
- Many new organizations and sites dedicated to putting literature online are in their infancy, and the next few years promise quick growth in the list of useful sites.
- Often the copyright status of a book or eBook can be hard to decipher. The original text can be in the public domain, but a certain translation or edition may not be. Err on the side of caution when copying text, but if it's an original version of something before 1923 you can be confident it's in the public domain in the United States.
- The Internet Archive, featured in the "Where can I search all free-use content?" section of this guide, also has an impressive number of library catalogs within its text tab.
's mission is to provide the public with as many free-use eBooks as possible, and they employ a substantial army of volunteers to do so. Their catalog contains over 20,000 free eBooks, most of which are in the public domain. Specific copyright information is given for each eBook.
Google Book Search
is Google's attempt to digitally store and make available the contents of the world's libraries and publishing houses. Using the "full view" search filter, you can search their cache of fully viewable books. Those in the public domain are available for free download, but as of now the only way to approximate such a filter is by adding the text "date:1500-1923" in the search query, which will return only those books published before 1923 (by default public domain material). Like most Google tools, this is a well-designed and well-functioning engine, and the ability to search by actual content (e.g., "a rose, by any other name") is as useful as it is innovative.
Online offers an impressive collection of books, all in the public domain. You can read the books in HTML format on the site, or download them as text files. Don't let the distracting design of the site keep you away from this useful resource.
might not host the largest collection of public domain books, but the ease of use and clean design of the site is a welcome respite from the messier, headache-inducing interfaces of sites such as Project Gutenberg and PDBooks Online. All books here are presented in easy-to-read HTML format, and though modestly sized now the catalog is growing.
elaborates on the idea of Project Gutenberg by integrating all the different ways one might experience a book. This volunteer-built and growing database of public domain texts provides links to the e-text, Wikipedia page, and an audio-recording of the material. The site contains what is most likely the largest online catalog of audio books and is constantly adding new titles.
is another place to stop if you prefer to listen to your literature. With a much smaller title list than Librivox, Loudlit's virtues lie in the clever read-as-you-listen feature. Instead of downloading the audio book, you can choose to listen to it as streaming content while you read along on screen. This last feature, paired with a tiny children's books section, offers a nifty way to help kids learn to read.
The Internet is a noisy place, with many audio offerings such as sound effects, midi clips and sheet music, entire albums or music samples, and blogs devoted to free sound. With almost half of Americans saying they downloaded music from the Web last year, copyright holders are struggling to keep up with the economic and legal ramifications of this expanding industry. These sites will help you grab all the goods you need while toeing the legal line.
- The copyright status of music can be tricky. Although there is a great deal of sheet music in the public domain, specific recordings and adaptations of it might not be. With record companies on the offensive these days, a careful examination of the legal status of any piece of music is recommended to avoid any legal unpleasantness.
- Musicians are more particular about rights than most other artists online, and the specificity of the Creative Commons licenses they use is often greater. Read each license carefully.
- Check out some music blogs if you're dying for some tunes but aren't quite up to date on the latest music.
- There are many different file formats for audio these days. Although most will sound like what you expect, one format-known as MIDI-is actually a simplified, computer-produced sound file. It will give you the idea of a song, but don't expect orchestral quality, or vocals of any kind.
For sheet music and MIDI ...
The Choral Public Domain Library
(CPDL) wiki lists a rather large number of composers and titles in the public domain, providing information, links, MIDI and mp3 recordings, lyrics, and sheet music for most. Because this is a wiki the consistency of the entries is not perfect, but the sheer volume of the site makes it useful for anyone interested in classical music.
expands on the idea of the CPDL with an easy-to-use advanced search function. The site also uses LilyPad typesetting software on some of the titles which produces natural-looking transcriptions. The search results are displayed in bulky but informative tables that will let you know exactly what you're getting, such as file types available, copyright status, publication date, and more.
's Sheet Music page follows its traditional model: brute-force searching, a homely look, and no-frills download formats. Despite these drawbacks, Project Gutenberg is as trustworthy as it gets when it comes to legal copyrights.
contains the lyrics and MIDI recordings for a substantial collection of early-American music. All the recordings are based on sheet music in the public domain.
provides the scores and MIDI recordings to a large body of choral music. Categories include individual composers, Christmas music, traditional folk songs, and more.
has taken all the obscure, unrecorded works of Beethoven and fashioned them into MIDI files so they might once again be heard. Though these file are copyrighted, the site has granted free use as long as you include proper attribution to their site.
For sound effects ...
Partners in Rhyme
not only has a large database of free-use sound effects and music, their audio tutorials and audio-related articles will help you understand what you're listening to and how to start producing your own work.
A1 Free Sound Effects
has a generic collection of sound effects that should suit any of your more basic sound needs-just don't be put off by the cheesy graphics and black background that give the site a less-than-professional look.
' search engine allows you to specify quite well what you'd want your sound file results to look like, including criteria such as sample rate and file size. Each result is displayed with an accompanying amplitude/frequency waveform picture to give a visual representation of the sound, and the "Sounds-Like Search" feature lets you find sounds based on a sample sound you provide. Using such a search engine, the copyright status of your results will need to be researched.
is another basic sound-effects database with a decent catalog of sounds. Its simple design and well-organized information make finding what you need a cinch.
For music and samples ...
is one of several sites that host Creative Commons-licensed music for artists that want to get their work exposure. A good design makes this site easy to look at, but depending on your browser some of the artist pages can be a bit buggy. The site's use of the peer-to-peer networks bitTorrent and eMule makes this site unique. Their collection is weighted heavily toward electronica and is a good place to check out if that is your cup of tea.
The Free Music Project
, part of the greater freeculture.org organization, offers a service similar to Jamendo with a pared-down design and interface. This site's uniqueness stems from its origins: all music uploaded before April 1, 2007 will be included in the One Laptop Per Child project, whose aim is to make laptop computers available to children worldwide.
's focus is sound and sound alone. This database of sound samples is rather extensive, and the convenient sound-characteristic tagging system makes finding the sound you want easy.
's site is a slick and legal way to access tons of samples and remixes, and use them to make your own. Community based and encouraging creativity, this site requires all submitted content to be covered by a Creative Commons license, so feel free to let your music-making mind run wild here without worrying about a legal lashing.
offers up free remixes of music that they deem "funky." You'll find artists like the Beastie Boys, Le Tigre, David Byrne, and lots of others. The site is easy on the eyes with a fresh design and cool graphics, and is organized intuitively. Check out the "Music Revolution" section for more information on the "copyright revolution."
is a good place to go for further exploration into the world of open-source/free-use music. Along with relevant news, it lists some great blogs, collaborations, music hubs, and other sites dedicated to open music.
is another tag-based, free-use music archive. Its minimalist design is lovely to look at but at first can leave you guessing what to do with the site. Nonetheless, take a gander at its musical offerings, or if you're interested in the free-culture movement follow the "free" section's long list of sites to learn more.
' site caters to a dance music audience. Anything with a big beat and a liberal license can find its home here.
is simply a list of all the full length, free-use recordings on Wikipedia and the WikiCommons.
Public Domain 4 U
has a library of about 100 early recordings, including many blues greats, some with photos of the artist.
's easy site hosts a good collection of classical music recordings in the public domain. Along with each piece is displayed a concise explanation of the composer and usually the specific piece itself, mostly taken from Wikipedia.
is a custom-made Google search engine created to aid your search for various free-use music. The simplicity and power of Google devices makes this a good tool for the site-weary.
For music blogs ...
's blog is the place to go if you're in for some dance/trance but don't want to navigate the jungle of the Dance-Industries site, from which most of this blog's picks are taken.
With the proliferation of broadband access, digital video recorders like TiVo, and the massive popularity (and often illegality) of video-hosting sites like YouTube, video has speedily come to the fore online. The big movie and TV companies, having learned from the adventures in court of the music industry, have responded in force. That said, if you want to do more than just watch a clip of The Daily Show or a monkey smelling its own poo, the need for legal free-use video is paramount. These sites will aid your search for that perfect clip that will keep you out of court.
- The amount of video content on the Web can be overwhelming, and most of it will run you into legal trouble. The sites listed here are not a guide to that endless sea of clips but instead will help you find legal content you can use and manipulate worry-free.
- Anyone can grab a clip from their TV and throw it on the Web with a one-liner below it, and unfortunately it seems that everybody does. Don't trust the claims of every Netizen as to the "free-use" of their clip; they probably don't own it and thus can't grant you anything.
- There are many video formats, and keeping track of them can lead to a headache. A small investment of time (and possibly money) to get all the requisite players and plug-ins before you start trawling for clips will save you the stress of finding that perfect 1930s newsreel that you can't view until you run the gauntlet of media-player pages.
's video gallery is full of fascinating computer simulations, educational mini programs, and real footage of missions. With an emphasis on all the recent Mars rovers and orbiters, it's a great collection for those with their heads in space. Unfortunately, as of yet you cannot download these videos but only view them online.
Entertainment Magazine Online
(not to be confused with Entertainment Weekly
) serves up a healthy offering of public domain movies, mostly from the early 20th century. If you can manage the sloppy design of this site, you'll find lots of worthy content.
contains "not everything, just the best" public domain comedy video clips. Quite true, as the library of laughs is less than overwhelming. But if you're hurting for some old-school humor it might have what you need.
is for all those who still like to sit back and watch the "boob tube" but miss all the programs of the past. The site has taken a large amount of public domain and Creative Commons footage and divvied it up, giving us a full list of commercial-free streaming TV stations, such as Comedy and Cartoons.
Now that you've seen what the free-use world has to offer, you might want to get more involved yourself. Perhaps you're an artist, a musician, or a writer and want people to enjoy your work. Maybe you're a lawyer with some expertise to offer all these creative souls. You might just be a curious person with an itch to change the world and keep our culture churning. These sites and tips will help you do all these things so that you and free-use can continue to grow.
- Many-indeed most-of the sites listed in this guide are user-based. If you like one in particular, try posting your own work and see where it takes you. Beware, though: despite your use of CC licenses, not everyone is as trustworthy as you are. You're always opening your work up to misuse when you put it online. Think of it as leaving your work on the streets of New York with a note saying "please be nice to me."
- Most free-use organizations are run on a volunteer basis. If you have particularly useful expertise, such as law experience or programming, your help would be especially well received.
- Subscribing to the newsletters or updates of free-use sites is a good way to keep up to date with the movement and with what people are putting online. Many blogs and podcasts also use RSS feeds, a type of format that allows you to get new content from frequently updated sites automatically. Go to http://www.whatisrss.com/ or http://gr0w.com/articles/help/rss_feeds_explained/ for more information on RSS feeds.
once again takes the lead in the movement, giving you countless ways to get involved, including discussion forums and event listings to get you in touch with other enthusiasts. The development pages give you a space to showcase new tools or the ways you've come up with to promote and make use of the Creative Commons system.
The Open Content Alliance
is attempting to build an online archive to make a huge body of knowledge and resources available to all. This gigantic project will contain a number of already massive archives including the Internet Archive and a long list of national and university archives.
's Center for Digital Democracy has a bit broader mission: to advocate on issues spanning the field of Internet democracy, focusing primarily on equal access (net neutrality) and the creation of a digital commons to facilitate civic interaction.
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