LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Many works, copyrighted or not, are available to the public for various kinds of use, including republication and distribution.

The public domain

The public domain comprises works "owned by the people" and not covered by copyright. Works may enter the public domain in various ways:

  • Material eligible for copyright is in the public domain by default.
  • When the copyright on a work expires, it enters the public domain. It is then "owned by the people" and may be used by anyone for any purpose.
  • Works created by the United States government or by its employees as directed work are exempted by U.S. Copyright Law and are thus in the public domain.
  • Occasionally, a work’s creator may freely release it to the public domain. However, this is rare. The lack of a copyright notice does not mean that a work is in the public domain!

Once a work is in the public domain, it is in the public domain forever (there have been exeptions, but they are rare). If material in the public domain is incorporated into a new work, only the parts of the new work that are original are eligible for copyright. To take a fairly trivial example, the creator of a photographic calendar owns rights only to the original part of the calendar — the photographs — and not to the names of days or months!

Public licenses

Any copyright holder may license a work to individuals or the public for various uses. A license permits the licensee to exercise some or all of the author’s exclusive rights in the work in a limited fashion defined by the terms of the license. Most licenses require payment and are granted to individuals for specific purposes. For example, when you buy a DVD, you are granted a license to view the film at home, but you are not permitted to show the work publicly or to make copies; these rights are retained by the copyright holder. A theater company may purchase a license to perform a play but that license may not grant the right to videotape the performance.

A public license, by contrast, is typically granted free of charge to anyone who wishes to obtain it, and grants broad rights to use and/or distribution. Public licenses are a boon to educators, because they permit broad use of a work without reliance on fair use.

Open source software

Open source refers to software applications that may be freely run, distributed, and modified. Most open source software is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL), which grants recipients the following rights, or "freedoms":

  • the freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • the freedom to study how the program works, and modify it (if the source code is made available).
  • the freedom to redistribute copies.
  • the freedom to improve the program, and release the improvements to the public (if the source code is made available).

Additionally, the GPL requires that copies and derivative works of software licensed under the GPL be itself licensed under the GPL. This legal mechanism, sometimes called "copyleft," ensures that open source software will remain open source.

Other open source software, such as the Firefox web browser, is licensed under various other public licenses. Some software is made available under several different public licenses. Additionally, some software, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, is made available under a more restrictive public license that does not permit modification.

Open source vs. shareware. Open source software is not the same as shareware, which is software made available by its creators for public use with the expectation that those who find it useful will make a (usually small) one-time payment. Shareware is distributed on the honor system, but continuing to use shareware after a stated trial period may be a violation of copyright.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that offers a flexible licensing system for creative work. Its licenses are designed for authors and artists who do not intend to profit from their work and wish it to be widely used and shared. Creative Commons licenses use the slogan "Some Rights Reserved" to distinguish them from the typical copyright notice "All Rights Reserved."

Creative Commons licenses are public licenses available free of charge to anyone. They allow anyone to use, republish, or distribute a work in any medium. Creators may place any or all of the following restrictions on the use of their work:

  • Attribution. The creator permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit in the manner requested.
  • Noncommercial. The creator permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work — and derivative works based upon it — but for noncommercial purposes only.
  • No Derivative Works. The creator permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of the work, not derivative works based upon it.
  • Share Alike. The creator permits others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs the original work.

Finding resources you can use

Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean you can use it! But there are several places on the web where you can find images and other content you and your students can freely use in your classroom and on class projects — even projects you want to publish to a website or otherwise distribute — without having to worry about fair use.

Materials available under Creative Commons license

If you or your students want to find resources such as photographs to use in classroom projects that may be published to the web or otherwise distributed, try looking for resources licensed under Creative Commons. Many excellent photogrophers and artists make their work available under Creative Commons licenses.

Be sure that the work is offered under the specific license you need! If you want to edit an image, for example, you’ll need an image licensed without the “no derivatives” permission. And be sure to respect the terms of the license, by crediting the creator if required.

  • Creative Commons provides a searchable directory of authors and artists who have registered their work with the organization.
  • The photo sharing website Flickr provides searchable access to images licensed under Creative Commons.
  • Common Content provides access to material licensed under Creative Commons, including large collections of images.

Materials in the public domain

You cannot assume that because an image or other resource is made available on the website of a U.S. government agency (such as the Library of Congress), it was necessarily created by the federal government and is therefore in the public domain. However, government websites provide a good place to start looking for materials in the public domain.

  • All images created by NASA are in the public domain and may be freely used. Try the Image of the Day Gallery as a place to start.
  • Many, but not all, of the images available through the Library of Congress were created by the U.S. government and are in the public domain. Look for works created by various federal agencies and projects such as the Federal Writers Project, the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, and the Office of War Information. Be sure to read the copyright notices carefully (look for the link to "Rights and Reproductions.")