Definitions of Public Domain, Fair Use, and Copyleft

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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.

Definitions of Public Domain, Fair Use, and Copyleft

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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Finding Free Content Online

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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Public Domain Photos and Other Free-Use Images

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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).

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Finding Free Books and Public Domain Literature

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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Public Domain Music and Free Audio Downloads

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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Free-Use Video and Film

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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The Free-Use Movement

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.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • 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.

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Community Links in Free-use Media

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