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A Guide to the Ever-Shrinking Public Domain

By (view all posts by pmiller)
at 7:56AM Thursday January 5, 2012
under Newsworthy

Photo courtesy of Roger Price, via Flickr

Every year, Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain celebrates "Public Domain Day." This is the day-- January 1st, to be precise-- when works officially pass into the public domain. This means that old movies, books, TV shows, cartoon characters, and other works of art will officially become free to download, watch, share, alter, distribute, and otherwise enjoy.

Unfortunately, this year's Public Domain Day was a bummer: Not a single work was released into the public domain. Even worse, no works will enter into the public domain until 2019. The reasons for this are complicated, but in a nutshell it has to do with ever-more-stringent intellectual property laws. If the laws had not been changed since the late 70s, this year we'd have seen many works enter the public domain--including some famous works by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Isaac Asimov.

While there won't be any new additions for some time, and there's no way to know what terrible laws the future holds, there's no reason not to take advantage of those works that have already been made available for free. Read on to learn some great ways to enjoy the public domain, while there still is one.

Archive.org

Archive.org aims to be the Internet's personal library. While it isn't the most user-friendly way to get free ebooks or photos, it does have an excellent, eclectic selection of old audio recordings, live music, snippets of film, and more. This site is good if want to get lost in some random arcana, and it's great if you need some royalty-free music for a student film or YouTube masterpiece.

Project Gutenberg


I am aware that I mention Project Gutenberg all the time. For a recent example, see my post on alternatives to the Kindle library lending program. I'm afraid that I have to talk about it again, so bear with me. Project Gutenberg is a massive library of free, public domain ebooks that will work on your smartphone, tablet, or computer. If you're a reader, it will blow your mind.

CC Search

More than a source of public domain work, Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that makes licensing your copyright-protected work easy. You can choose out-the-box licensing agreements that make your work available to share, if not outright place in the public domain. CC Search is Creative Common's own engine for searching every work they've got on file. This includes clip art, videos, and every imaginable kind of media, hosted on other sites such as Flickr or YouTube. Fun fact: This site is a great way to find royalty free photos to use on blogs, such as the photo that accompanies this post.

Open Culture

Open Culture is, of all the sites on this list, probably the most fun. Rather than try to make a comprehensive library like Archive.org or Project Gutenberg, the minds behind Open Culture have decided to shape a more slick, curated, blog-like experience. Though comparing these sites directly isn't really fair: Open Culture actually links to a lot of stuff that's on Archive.org.

At the top of the site, you'll find the basic categories. Open Culture is a great source for free online college courses, language lessons, audiobooks, you name it. For a start, try checking out their list of 450 free online movies. Next, browse the awesome Cultural Icons section, where 290 artists and thinkers describe their work in their own words. If you're not home, you can even browse Open Culture on their iPhone app.

What are your favorite ways to take advantage of the public domain? Please share in the comments.