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Finding Content for Reuse   Tags: copyright, creative commons, multimedia, public domain  

This guide provides some information about how to find public domain or Creative Commons multimedia online for reuse for both commercial and non-commercial purposes.
Last Updated: Jul 7, 2014 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts
Finding Content For Reuse Print Page


There are a number of misconceptions that many people have regarding the images, sounds, music, video and text that they find on the Internet. Here are some common misconceptions and responses to why you as an individual should be careful what you reuse from the Internet:

  • "I found it on the web so it must be in the public domain."
    Response: Just because something is available on someone's website or a company's website does not mean that you have the rights to reuse it elsewhere. If you can't find clear statements about the copyright of the item, you may be able to assume that it is copyrighted.
  • "The copyright owner couldn't possibly find out that I used their copyrighted content."
    Response: There are spiders that crawl the web actively looking for copyright infringements. Furthermore, some companies are specifically tasked with the purpose of tracking copyright infringements such as Copyspace, FairShare, etc.
  • "I cited where the item came from, so I can't be violating copyright."
    Response: Attribution doesn't constitute permission. If an item is copyrighted and you're using it for certain purposes, attributing the item to the original author does not necessarily justify your usage of the item.
  • "I'm not publishing the material, it's just on my website."
    Response: Putting something on the Internet can in some cases constitute publishing, therefore, you need to get permission before using others content there.
  • "My usage of this content constitutes "fair use."
    Response: Fair use is a defense, not an exception, so if a copyright owner contested your usage of their content, you'd have to go to court to straighten that out. There are a number of factors that would then be reviewed (*in court*) to determine if the use in fact was "fair use:"
    1. Purpose and character of use
    2. Nature of the copyrighted work
    3. Amount and sustainability of the portion used
    4. Effect of the use on the market

What's the best way to avoid having to struggle with the complex ideas of copyright? Use public domain and Creative Commons content!


Finding Multimedia in the Public Domain

‘A work of authorship is in the “public domain” if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.’ From
The following table highlights some items that are currently in the public domain. For more information see Cornell University's Guide to Copyright.

Date of publication Conditions Copyright Term
Before 1923 None Public domain
1923 through 1977 Published without a copyright notice Public domain
1923 through 1963 Published with notice If the copyright was not renewed, then it is in the public domain. If the copyright was renewed, then 95 years after publication.
1964 through 1977 Published with notice 95 years after publication
1978 to 1 March 1989 Published without a copyright notice Public domain OR 70 years after the death of the author (plus many other restrictions) depending on whether or not the item was registered
1 March 1989 through 2002 Date of creation Depends on the date of creation
After 2002 None 70 years after the death of the author (plus many additional detailed restrictions)
Anytime Works prepared by employees of the U.S. government as part of their duties Public domain

Here are some resources for public domain sounds/music:

  • MusOpen: Musopen provides access to classical music in the public domain.  No attribution is necessary for public domain music.
  • ChoralWiki: This site provides access to choral music in the public domain.  No attribution is necessary for public domain music.

Here are some resources for public domain images:

  • Library of Congress, Print and Photographs Online Catalog: The Library of Congress has a vast collection of public domain photographs available in their Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.  Each image will include copyright information under “Rights Advisory” and as public domain photographs do not require attribution, those in the public domain are the safest to use.
  • Agricultural Research (ARS) Image Gallery:  This site includes high-resolution digital photographs of animals, crops, insects, plants, fruits and vegetables, and illustrations from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Staff.
  • NASA-GRIN:  This site includes many images of astronomy and science.  The images should be checked to ensure that they do not have copyright restrictions (most images are in the public domain) and NASA should be attributed as the source.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library:  This website is a source of images of weather among many other topics, some historical. All photographs are in the public domain, however credit must be given to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce. Where a photographer is noted, the photographer and his or her affiliated organization should also be credited.
  • National Archives and Records Administration (NARA):  The National Archives and Records Administration has a collection of images, documents and artifacts from American History.  The copyright restrictions on all images should be checked (most are in the public domain) and NARA should be attributed.

Creative Commons

"Creative Commons develops, supports and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation." - From Creative Commons.

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that has developed free tools for creating copyright licenses. Content owners can define how their work can be reused and users can license items that match their usage of the work. Below is a listing of Creative Commons licenses, with their allowed use explained. For more information on each of these licenses, click on the type of license or the logo:

Type of License Logo Allowed Use
Attribution CC BY Distribute, remix, tweak and recreate (also commercially) as long as the creator is attributed.
Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA Distribute, remix, tweak and recreate (also commercially) as long as the creator is attributed AND whatever you create is also licensed under the same CC license.
Attribution-NoDerivs CC BY-ND Redistribution for commercial and non-commercial purposes - cannot be modified, and the creator must be attributed.
Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC Distribute, remix, tweak and recreate NON-COMMERCIALLY as long as the creator is attributed.
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike CC BY-NC-SA Distribute, remix, tweak and recreate NON-COMMERCIALLY as long as the creator is attributed AND whatever you create is also licensed under the same CC license.
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND    Redistribution for NON-COMMERCIAL purposes - cannot be modified, and the creator must be attributed.

When licensing Creative Commons content, you may want to ask yourself (1) if you're using the item for commercial or non-commercial purposes, (2) are you changing the work in any way, and (3) does the item have a "ShareAlike" or "SA" license. IF the item has a ShareAlike license, you must ALSO license the work under the exact same license.

Here are some resources for Creative Commons sound/music:

  • Freesound: The Freesound Project is a collaborative database of Creative Commons licensed sound.  This site includes only links to sounds, not songs.  Most of the sounds from this site require attribution, i.e. the source of the sound must be cited. The specific Creative Commons licenses should be checked on the individual files to ensure that the sound can be reused for the purposes you intend.
  • IMSLP / Petrucci Music Library: The IMSLP includes many public domain music scores that can be downloaded. Recordings are also available, most of which are reusable with Creative Commons Licenses. Read the terms and conditions carefully. Creative Commons content may be safer to use than public domain content if the actual reliability of the copyright information is not clear.
  • ccMixter:  The site dig ccMixter has many full songs available for download, which can be reused both commercially and non-commercially.  Generally a search of the “Instrumental” music section will pull up many relevant hits.  Music can be previewed on the site and downloaded.  A few things to note: Most of the music from this site requires attribution, i.e. the source of the music must be listed on whatever you create. The attribution text commonly used with the music from this site is a Creative Commons 3.0 license and generally includes the name of the song, the artist name, a link to the file on ccMixter and information about the Creative Commons license type.  This text can be copied by clicking the “i” button next to the song title to be used and selecting “more” twice until the “Attribution” screen is shown (see below):

Here are some resources for Creative Commons images:

  • Wikimedia Commons: Wikimedia Commons can be searched for images and includes a repository of free images, music, sound, video and other multimedia works.  Content is categorized by topic, medium, author, and copyright status (including public domain content) and source.  Copyright should be checked before using this content with public domain items taking preference.
  • Image*After: All photographs on this site can be used without payment of royalties and can be modified and redistributed both commercially and non-commercially.
  • Open Photo:  This is a photo community site created and run by photographer Michael Jastremski offering more than 3,000 photographs that are free to use. The attribution “Photo courtesy of” should be used.
  • Flickr:  Content on Flickr can be searched via license type by selecting Advanced Search and selecting “Search the Commons” from the drop down box in the advanced search options.  Copyright and license restrictions of any image selected should be checked.  Images in the public domain are the safest to use. Most images in Flickr are not in the public domain, so special attention will need to be paid to the copyright restrictions.

Subject Librarian

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Suzanna Conrad
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University Library, 15-2810-D
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Digital Initiatives Librarian

Presentation Slides

This workshop was presented on 11/15/2012. Presentation slides for this workshop are available for download here and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) license.


Tips to Safeguard Yourself

Keep in mind that librarians are not lawyers. This guide should not constitute legal advice and if you need legal advice, consult a lawyer. Some tips that will help you though for finding content that should be safer are as follows:

  • Choose items with clearly listed copyright information
  • Double-check all copyright information
  • Copy attribution texts exactly where possible
  • Re-read terms of use on websites where you find content

What About Video?

There are a few sites such as that have Creative Commons content, however video may include copyrighted material, therefore check with the copyright owner before using video.

Vimeo has a section where you can browse content for Creative Commons videos that can be reused.


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