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Images in the Health Sciences: Public Domain

No Rights Reserved

Image from Pixabay/Clker-Free-Vector-Images is licensed under CC0

Public Domain

Images in the public domain are not restricted by copyright and can be used in a variety of ways—in papers, in presentations, in published works, or in the classroom. No restrictions for use exist on materials that are truly in the public domain. Items come into the public domain for any of the following reasons: 

  • They were created before copyright laws existed
  • Any copyrights associated with the work have expired  
  • Copyright has been forfeited or waived 
  • Copyright is inapplicable

Public domain images and collections may or may not explicitly state their status. If in doubt, contact the source of the image.

United States government creative works, including writing, images, and computer code, are usually prepared by officers or employees of the United States government as part of their official duties. A government work is generally not subject to copyright in the United States. (This applies to the federal government not individual state governments.) 

Unless the work falls under an exception, anyone may, without restriction under U.S. copyright laws:

  • Reproduce the work in print or digital form
  • Create derivative works
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work
  • Distribute copies or digitally transfer the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending

However, this does not mean that everything found on a federal government website is in the public domain. Many image collections on government websites may include public domain and copyright protected images. Read the terms and conditions for each site visited and review the copyright information for a given image.

When creators of a work choose to waive their copyrights and dedicate their work to the public domain, they may do so using a Creative Commons CC0 License. (See the Creative Commons Licensing page to learn more about Creative Commons and their licenses.) The mark shown below used with an image may indicate the image is in the public domain.

Image from Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

For non-U.S. government works and for images that don't explicitly indicate their status, a user may need to assess whether an image could be protected by copyright. U.S. Copyright Law has changed over time, which means that images may become part of the public domain at different times. Here are the basics: 

  • Anything published before 1923 is in the public domain. 
  • Works published after January 1, 1923 but before January 1, 1964 and renewed during the 28th year is protected for 95 years from the date of publication.
  • Works published between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977 is protected for 95 years from the date of publication.
  • Works created before January 1, 1978 and published before December 31, 2002 is protected until at least December 31, 2047.
  • Works published after January 1, 1978 is protected for life of the author plus 70 years.

Use these tools to make case-by-case determinations: 

A user does not have to give credit for public domain images, but here are three reason why doing so is a good idea:

  • Enhance credibility
  • Be a role model
  • Thank the source