I was thinking of using public domain images as backgrounds to my photos. Do I still technically "own" the resulting work?


Your best bet is to consult a legal expert with experience in Copyright law for your country as the laws vary from place to place.

In the US, you are free to use images in the public domain without permission from the original copyright owner (as the owner is the public). As such, you are free to construct derivative works.

You of course will need to ensure that the images you do use, are indeed part of the public domain.

  • 15
    Yep, and remember that "on Google Images" does not mean public domain. Sep 16 '10 at 7:49
  • 1
    @Peter - yes, the whole concept of "public domain" is widely misused. There are a wide variety of attribution and licensing agreements (creative commons, etc.) that are "free" but not "public domain". PD is actually defined rather narrowly, and is pretty rare. @Dian, unless stated otherwise by the photo author, assume that the only portion you have "copyright" over is the portion that you actually create.
    – user1406
    Sep 16 '10 at 20:13
  • Okay, thanks. @Peter: I know, my deviantart pics get stolen though google images sometimes. @GalacticCowboy: Okay, got that, thanks.
    – Dian
    Sep 17 '10 at 7:37

In the USA:

As others have explained, you can do this legally. You'll create something called a "derived work". You own the copyright to the derived work, but not the public domain portion.

For example, this is why you can't legally copy CDs of classical music performances. While the music itself is in the public domain, the particular performance is copyrighted by the performer.

  • 1
    "Music" being the composition itself. Think notes on paper. Jan 22 '11 at 23:47
  • Not necesserilly even that. The notes on paper are a copyrighted work, the actual notes aren't but the way they're edited is :) You could take those notes and write them down and you'd have your own original work, but you couldn't make photocopies of that paper and give them away (or sell them).
    – jwenting
    May 30 '11 at 5:13

If you build on an image that someone else has generously placed in the public domain (assuming that it is really public domain), why would you want to own it? Surely you should equal the original act of generosity and make your derivative work public domain as well.

It is this spirit of generosity and sharing that created the Internet which is based on open source software. As an example, the intent of the GPL software licence is to perpetuate the original licensing conditions to maintain the chain of sharing and prevent freeloading by derivative authors.

I am aware that one cannot really equate software with photos and naturally I respect the right of original authors to choose the licensing conditions that suit their particular circumstances.

Nevertheless it is worth remembering that the spirit of sharing, exemplified by the open source software movement has had an extraordinarily transformative effect.

  • It depends, of course. Some people contribute intellectual works to the public domain specifically with the intent of enabling further commercial derivatives if someone finds that useful. Many proponents of BSD-style licensing are in favor of this approach, for example, and for pragmatic reasons there also exist "weak copyleft" licenses like the LGPL.
    – mattdm
    Jan 23 '11 at 1:55
  • And this is specifically why Creative Commons offers both SA and non-SA versions of their licenses. Let's not forget the Share Alike license that this site uses!
    – mattdm
    Jan 23 '11 at 1:56
  • @mattdm, yes, I agree that it depends on the intent of the original creator. The problem with 'public domain' is that we can't be sure of the creator's intent, although it often means the creator simply does not care.
    – labnut
    Jan 23 '11 at 8:20
  • 1
    Putting an image in the public domain is utterly different to licensing it under any license, open or not. Public domain is not a license; it is akin to disowning the image - you are transferring ownership of it to "nobody". With no actual owner, anyone is free to do whatever they like with it. It's not like an open source or creative commons license where you need to respect the author's wishes or generosity or the spirit of sharing. It's as free - and free to exploit for your own gains - as sunlight. And like sunlight, if you use it to create an artwork, that artwork is yours. Jan 24 '11 at 6:47
  • And ironically enough, it is the BSD license that built the internet, at least if you consider the TCP/IP stack the internet.
    – fmark
    May 29 '11 at 9:27

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