Free and Legal Stuff You Can USE!

Adapted from a presentation today at “Enhancing Quality Staff 2012“, which a really fun and engaging symposium, and always really well-run (by UMN Libraries colleagues.)

Sometimes it gets a little tiring to work through all the details of copyright exemptions and exceptions. Especially when we’re building on other people’s stuff to make new things, we can make choices that make everything WAY EASIER – just search for inspiration amongst stuff you already know you can use!

(Note: this is all highly U.S-centric. Sorry, international folks, I don’t know your public domain laws. Creative Commons should port, though!)

You Can Use Stuff When…

Copyright doesn’t apply
This is also known as the public domain – the body of works available for all of us to use. We all own them! Sometimes it’s hard to figure out if something is in the public domain, but there are two times when it’s fairly easy:

If it was published, in the United States, prior to 1923
If it was produced by the U.S. federal government.

There is a ton of other stuff in the public domain, including things from well after 1923, but that’s the easy stuff.

ETA, 6/27/12: please note that neither one of these situations is always 100% easy! For the 1923 cut off rule, “publication” can be an issue (e.g., letters in an attic from 1912 – probably never published, possibly not public domain.) And many federal government resources are produced by contractors, who may own the rights. You may need to learn quite a bit more, to make determinations about public domain status for yourself.

If someone other than you is making the assessment of public domain status, you will want to consider the reliability and authoritativeness of that assessment.

Permission has been granted

Here’s one way to know you have permission:

“Can I use this?” “Yes.”

This often works well when you can make contact with the creator directly, but note, this only works if you ask the person who owns the copyright – which is often not the creator!

Open licenses are another way to know you have permission – it’s a form of licensing where the rightsholder gives the whole world a license to use the work (though sometimes with some restrictions.) Creative Commons licenses are the most common form of open content licenses; free and open-source software licenses are another example.

Places to Find Stuff You Can Use

Creative Commons Search

Search through many different sites for Creative Commons licensed content in a variety of media.

Internet Archive

Slightly overwhelming listing of multimedia content. Creative Commons (& other open licenses) and public domain.

“The Commons” on Flickr

Photos from archives & museums with “no known copyright restrictions” (i.e., probably public domain)

Open Clipart
Vector/clipart images. Widely varying quality. All public domain*.

Flickr Creative Commons content

Use the advanced search interface on Flickr to find only Creative Commons licensed photographs.

Collection of sheet music and recordings. All public domain*.

CC Mixter

Collection of sound samples and finished musical works. All Creative Commons licensed.


Music site. All Creative Commons licensed. In and out of service, lately.


Music site. All Creative Commons licensed, but primarily available to fee-paying members.

Project Gutenberg

Collection of text and scanned-image copies of books. All public domain.

Open Library

Project of the Internet Archive – somewhat free e-books. Public domain and other.


Volunteer-read audiobooks. All public domain*.

Many authors have also released new books under Creative Commons licenses, but they’re not easily searchable from any one location.

Al Jazeera’s Creative Commons footage
Some of the better Creative-Commons licensed documentary footage available, though of course with limited topic coverage.
Video site; allows creators to apply Creative Commons licenses to their videos. You can browse CC-licensed videos from this page.

Video site; there is CC-licensed content on here, but no easy search interface that I can find at the moment.  

You can also search YouTube including “creative commons” as part of your search words – then check the full info to see if the video is licensed. (Or look at for info on how to license, but they don’t quite support the full suite of licenses.)

*For any new work, including present-day recordings of public domain music, copyright automatically exists from the time of creation. Although some creators or performers may want to relinquish all
their rights, it’s actually kind of legally difficult to do that – most
countries, the U.S. included, automatically give some rights that
creators cannot sell or give away. Several of the “public domain” resources on this list include new content, but creators on these projects usually at least intend to cede their rights.

Stuff to Help You Use This Stuff

The following free and open-source software is all stuff I use (or have fairly recently used) on my personal computer (Linux Mint), my work PC, or both.


Completely free and open suite of office software that interoperates pretty well with Microsoft.

VLC Media Player

Audio/video player. Will play any format you throw at it.

GIMP (the Gnu Image Manipulation Program) –

Photo editor – like Photoshop, but free and legal to install on as many computers as you want! Very full-featured, slightly different interface, but if you give it a couple of days, the adjustment is easy even for a longtime Photoshop user.


A vector image editor (like CorelDraw or Illustrator).
Vector art is infinitely scaleable without loss of print quality, so this is a good tool for making posters, flyers, other one-page layouts. Most clipart (including all the .SVG files on is vector art.


Great audio recorder, mixer, and editor.


A good stripped-down open source program for basic video editing.


A very full-featured citation management program that is a browser plugin for Firefox, and that integrates with MSOffice and open office suites.

If you’ve got any favorite open content, public domain content, or open source software resources, feel free to add in the comments! Anon commenting is okay, but I’m a slow moderator. 🙂

Join the Conversation


    1. Thanks! I like the disclaimer at font play – it’s realistic about the complicated nature of rights in photos, the difficulties of real public domain dedication, and the risks of using photos that might include additional nested copyrights.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, these are great. And I wasn’t familiar with Shared Shelf Commons!

      One of the things I particularly like about Wikimedia Commons is the way they very clearly and prominently document copyright and licensing information for each image. I also love seeing where the files are being used – it’s great evidence that looser rights control can have massive public benefits!

  1. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement?
    My site has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either written myself or outsourced
    but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without
    my permission. Do you know any solutions to help prevent content from being ripped off?
    I’d certainly appreciate it.

    1. Hello, spammer! You have managed to exceed the usual word-salad standards of your peers, and actually make an on-topic comment. So, I’ve deleted your spam links and keywords, but will respond to your substantive question!

      I don’t have much in the way of solutions around content being ripped off, partly because my blog is Creative Commons license, so most re-use is pre-authorized.

  2. Hi just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you
    know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think
    its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same results.

    1. Yes, I’m aware of this; it’s a leftover issue from porting this blog from another server. One of these days I’ll get around to making more retroactive changes.
      Thanks for the feedback, tho!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *