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Public domain and the Internet

'Public domain' refers to material for which copyright has expired or where an author has specifically indicated that the material is in the public domain.

Material that is available to the public via the Internet or other means is not public domain simply by reason of its being publicly available.

Public domain

Some public domain and open access websites contain resources such as images and clip art that are royalty free, or have a creative commons licence. This means you do not need the permission of the copyright owner or reliance on an educational licence to use the material contained in these sites. Nevertheless, before using any material from any Internet site, always check that you understand the Terms of Use of material on that site. These are usually found under headings such as 'Copyright', 'Terms of Use', 'About this site' or 'Legals'.

The following sites may be a useful starting point:

  • Creative Commons (CC): Creative commons provides access to licensed media that you can legally share and reuse freely. Under a Creative Commons Licence, the creator retains copyright while allowing others to copy and distribute copyrighted work under the conditions stipulated in the licence.
  • Open Education and Free For Education resources: This is a list of resources from Smartcopying, refer to individual websites to determine exactly what can be used and how.
  • Pics4Learning: Copyright-friendly images for education.
  • Microsoft Clipart: Microsoft Office clip art can be used for personal or educational use.

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The Internet

Material on the Internet is relatively easy to obtain and copy but this does not mean it is not equally protected by copyright or by terms and conditions included on sites.

It is reasonable to conclude that if a person has made material available on the web, there is an implied licence to make a copy for personal use if there is no statement to the contrary.

It may be that the material includes a very clear message as to the intended use of the material; for example: 'The material on this website is copyright and for the exclusive use of staff and students of University X'.

Alternatively, there may also be a notice giving permission for specific, generally non-commercial purposes, perhaps subject to a number of conditions such as acknowledgements.

Or there may be a notice that purports to prohibit any further use, in which case we could generally rely on our statutory rights to use a reasonable portion of the material for educational purposes.

A reasonable portion of a website may be difficult to determine. Use your common sense. If you are unsure, check with the Copyright Office.

If you are reproducing material from the web in digital form for distribution to students, it will need to be registered with the Copyright Office. This does not apply to linking to material at it's original location.