Monday, November 26, 2012

Okay to Copyright Public Domain Images?

If you're a collage artist using public domain images in your work, eventually you're bound to hear from the morality police if you blog long enough. These would be those gutless, anonymously commenting, cowards who have somehow made it their business to point out the error of your plagiaristic ways but is it plagiarism?

What does public domain mean? The below is extracted directly from Wikipedia, one of the largest online resources for public domain material. Further explanation can be found by reading the article Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.

The public domain is generally defined (e.g. by the U.S. Copyright Office) as the sum of works that are not copyrighted, i.e.
  • that were not eligible for copyright in the first place, or
  • whose copyright has expired, or
  • that were released into the public domain by the copyright holder

That said, what can you do with public domain works? Public domain means the work is 100% free for use, including private and commercial use. Let me tell you, writers do this all the time. Some of those self help books you're so fond of reading? Yep, altered public domain material. This also means that the average Jane can shamelessly slather unaltered, public domain images with a copyright or watermark and claim it as her own.
original, unaltered vintage ephemera
The perfume image above can currently be found on at least two blogs. Altered Artifacts claims full copyright to her image while Vintage Feedsacks offers this public domain image to us to use as we please. I guess that would include digital downloads of any kind. Hmmm . . . Which one should I choose? I've seen Etsy sellers offer collage sheets for sale that are filled with unaltered, public domain images that I've been able to find on Wikimedia. Guess what? Like it or not, it's legal!

From my observations, the internet is riddled with similar examples and all are considered legal in the United States although one could argue that the former example is considered plagiarism since it is unaltered and the original source is not cited.

Anywho, if others can can claim copyright and/or sell their unaltered public domain images, I'm certainly not going to suddenly get religion about altering public domain images and incorporating them into a nicely designed and yes, original piece of digital collage. It's not for anyone else to decide how they, you or I should use the public domain images so keep calm and collage with confidence my friends. :)


  1. Thanks for the info. I love those labels!

  2. Ha!! It can be confusing for sure. I tend to use only my creations because of the strange rules.



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