How To Graphics #5: Can You Copyright Public Domain Art?

How To Graphics #5: Can You Copyright Public Domain Art?Can you copyright public domain art?

You can’t copyright public domain material as is, which would remove it from free public use.

The public owns these works, not an individual. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can own it.

However – if you substantially change the public domain material, then you own the copyright of the derivative work.

How To Graphics: Can You Copyright Public Domain Art?

Additionally, a collection of public domain material will be protected if the person who compiled it has used creativity in the selection and organization of the material. You’re free to use individual pieces, but copying and distributing the complete collection may infringe the “collective works” copyright. source

How much do you need to change the public domain material to copyright it? There’s no specific percentage. Likely, if a case went to court, it would depend on the judge’s interpretation of the piece, his/her personal stance on the issue, and other factors.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV – or the internet! You should always do your own due diligence if you have specific concerns. In other words, hire a lawyer ;-)

How I Created the Graphic with Public Domain Art

I made the accompanying images by combining two pieces of public domain art – photo and logo. I didn’t bother to put a copyright © on it, but I could argue that I used creativity in the combination, and substantially altered the original image. Honestly, I’m not certain this is enough of a change to qualify for a new copyright. The only reason I would care about someone downloading a piece like this is if they took off my name, and especially if they put theirs on instead.

Do people do stuff like that? Oh yes! Sadly.

How To Graphics #5: Can You Copyright Public Domain Art?For each image in this series I created for Twilight Zone Day, I put the TZ logo on a separate layer and switched it from black to white. In Photoshop, you can do that quickly by “inverting” the layer: Image… Adjustments… Invert, or command-I.

I changed the opacity of the layer to about 50% – whatever looked good with each image. In some cases, I added a drop shadow instead of lightening it as a watermark, so the logo would stand out against the light photo background (see image at right).

Be sure to check out my previous post for more details on finding public domain art. I did find these images in the same place: WikiMedia.

And here’s the whole Twilight Zone slideshow! I created a series of images for a photo album on my Facebook Fan Page. I’ve heard that albums get great engagement and – this one did! Perhaps I’ll write a post explaining how to set up a Fan Page album, as it’s a bit hidden.

I hope you found this useful! Please give this post a “Like” if it’s helped give you some clarity on the question, Can you copyright public domain art? Thanks!

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About Louise Myers

Louise Myers is a graphic design expert whose designs have been featured by Disney, Macy's, WalMart and more. Her straightforward writing style empowers small business owners to make their own graphics for social media success! Follow Louise on Twitter: @Louise_Myers
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4 Responses to How To Graphics #5: Can You Copyright Public Domain Art?

  1. Lynne

    Thanks very useful information to know. Its best that we consult a lawyer if we have plans to recreate an image.
    Lynne recently posted..10 Inspiring Coaching Quotes That Rock Your WorldMy Profile

  2. Bill Gassett

    Hey Louise I wanted to give you a heads up and let you know that a number of your links in this post do not work. You may want to check on it:)
    Bill Gassett recently posted..Comment on Top Marketing Tips From 20 Real Estate and Social Media Professionals by Bill GassettMy Profile

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