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Copyright-friendly resources for media projects

Finding openly licensed media

When you are adding images, audio, video or other material that you did not create to a project, you must make sure you have permission to use that media and are not infringing on the copyright of the producer of the original material. One way to do this is to use resources that are in the public domain, are royalty-free, or have a Creative Commons license. The resources in this guide fall under one of these categories.

Remember, even though you don't need the permission of the creator to use these materials, you should always cite the source and give credit to the author.

When can I use someone else's work without permission?

In the U.S., there are three main ways to determine if you can use someone else's work without their explicit/written permission.*

  1. The work is in the "Public Domain"
  2. Your use of the work falls under the "Fair Use" doctrine of U.S. Copyright Law
  3. The author has explicitly defined the rights of use through "Creative Commons Licensing"


What is Public Domain?

​Works in the "Public Domain" are not protected by copyright law and are free for you to use without permission of the owner. *

In the U.S., works enter the Public Domain in a number of ways:

  • the copyright protection expires, which is a length of time set by law
  • the copyright owner does not follow copyright renewal rules
  • the copyright owner explicitly gives the work to the public without copyright protection
  • copyright law does not apply to the type of work - this affects things like U.S. Government publications, facts and theories, short phrases, etc.

When does a copyright expire?

Copyright expirations are set in the U.S. by law. Currently, the copyright of anything published after 1977 will not expire until 70 years after the author's death. For works authored by multiple people, the copyright will not expire until 70 years after the last surviving author's death.

What is currently in the public domain?

  • In 2020, all content published before 1924 became public domain.
  • Some content published before 1964. The copyright law at the time required authors to file a renewal, and not all authors were able to do so in time. You should check the Copyright Office to see if a renewal was filed before using this material.

*Even if you may use a work without permission, you still must cite your sources and/or credit the author.


What is Fair Use?

Fair use is a principle in U.S. copyright law that permits portions of copyrighted material to be re-used without permission from the author or creator of the material. Section 107 details the purposes under which fair use may apply:

  • Criticism
  • Comment
  • News reporting
  • Teaching (including making copies for classroom use)
  • Scholarship or research

To determine if the particular usage is fair, the law also details four factors to consider:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

Visit Stanford University Libraries' website for examples


What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons (CC) licenses provide a way for people to share their work and make it available for others to build on and reuse. There are a variety of different licenses that specify what restrictions or guidelines govern the use of the material. All but one licenses require giving credit (attribution) to the author or creator.

These are the available type of licenses listed in order of increasing restrictions:

  1. Public Domain (CC0) 
    No restrictions
  2. Attribution (CC BY)
    Must give credit to author
  3. Attribution - ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)
    Must give credit to author; if you modify or modify or adapt the content, it must be licensed under the same terms
  4. Attribution - No Derivatives (CC BY-ND)
    Must give credit to author; free to copy and distribute as long as content is not altered
  5. Attribution - NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)
    Must give credit to author; can only use for non-commercial projects
  6. Attribution - NonCommercial - ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA)
    Same as #5 plus if you modify or adapt the content, it must be licensed under the same terms as the original
  7. Attribution - NonCommercial - No Derivatives (CC BY-NC-ND)
    Same as #4 but can only be used for non commercial projects

These licenses have a set of icons to help label what the restrictions are. Look for the round "CC" icon to identify Creative Commons material.

More Information