In August I wrote about how to cite  Creative Commons photos.  Today I’d like to investigate how or why to cite Public Domain photos.  The following is not to be taken as legal advice, but as general guidelines for academic work, in a school setting.

Rights are country-specific, so there is no “one size fits all” discussion of this topic.  Wikipedia begins the page on Public Domain with this paragraph:

“Works in the public domain are those whose exclusive intellectual property rights have expired,[1] have been forfeited,[2] or are inapplicable.[3][4] For example, the works of Shakespeareand Beethoven, and most of the early silent films, are all now in the public domain by leaving the copyright term.[1] Examples for works not covered by copyright which are therefore in the public domain, are the formulae of Newtonian physics, cooking recipes[3] and all software before 1974.[5] Examples for works actively dedicated into public domain by their authors are the Serpent encryption reference implementation,[6] NIH‘s ImageJ,[7] and the CIA‘s The World Factbook.[8] The term is not normally applied to situations where the creator of a work retains residual rights, in which case use of the work is referred to as “under license” or “with permission”.

“As rights are country-based and vary, a work may be subject to rights in one country and be in the public domain in another. Some rights depend on registrations on a country-by-country basis, and the absence of registration in a particular country, if required, creates public domain status for a work in that country.”(Read more about the public domain on this page at Wikipedia.)

The Media Project Policy Blog of the London School of Economics posted a two part article  by Melanie Dulong de Rosnay comparing default entitlements to information in the areas of copyright and data protection law., explaining the implications of the report and the relevant background:

“In theory, the concept of the public domain envisions information as belonging by default to society at large, providing an alternative to the usual entitlement to private persons. In copyright law, the notion of the Public Domain allows for the cancellation or limitation of default private entitlements, enabling the distribution and re-use of information without restrictions under certain circumstances.” I urge you to read the entire article at this link.  This is a complicated topic!  What is in the public domain in the United States may or may not be so in the European Union. To learn about more specific differences between/among countries, read the Commons: Copyright rules by territory page on Wikipedia.

I will jump ahead (skipping for the moment the topic of how to find public domain images) for the purposes of this post:  I have searched for and found this image for my article, which carries this tag: “This image identified by the The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions”  I read on this page that “The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts content is now available for download and reuse. Although still technically in copyright in the UK (and a number of other common law territories) the images are being made available under a Public Domain Mark* which indicates that there are no copyright restrictions on reproduction, adaptation, republication or sharing of the content available from the site. The catalogue information is made available under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.”

How shall I cite this image, which, being in the public domain, does not require citation?  I look for models on the web: On the Future Learn site, it carries this description: “Edward III © British Library Board. From Nova Statuta c. 1451. Made available under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication”.

The image’s  Wikimedia page suggests using “By Anonymous [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons” (with a  link back to its page). uses the image without citation or description, and uses it with this description: “Edward III Courtesy of British Library Illuminated Manuscript Collection” but no link back to the source.

Do I cite this public domain image in my work?  Absolutely!

In the IB’s publication “Effective citing and referencing” (August 2014) we read that “…when creating an authentic piece of work, we are expected to…acknowledge all contributing sources appropriately.” Legally, one is  not compelled to provide attribution when using an item from the public domain. It is common practice in academia, however, to show respect for others by providing attribution, even when using public domain material.

Many college and university library web pages offer help on finding and citing images: UCLA Library, Yale University Library, Sonoma University Library

Otis College of Art and Design Library offers an excellent guide on how to proceed:

  • Determine the title of the work – You may have to create your own caption or description.
  • Determine who created the work – artist, design, photographer, illustrator, etc. This can be difficult to find. If you are stuck, try looking at any embedded metadata in the image or try a reverse image search like TinEye or Google Search by Image.
  • Determine who provided the image – Flickr, someone’s blog or website, company’s official website, stock photo, online photo collection, research database, museum website, etc. When possible, link to the original or definitive source, not the Pinterest board.
  • Evaluate the image –  Like other sources, images should be evaluated for quality. A photo of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre websitewill be more credible than one found on or one of the first search results.
  • Document where you found the image online – When possible, link to the page with the information about the image. Otherwise, link directly to the image. Also, write down the date you last accessed it successfully.
  • Look for rights statements and crediting preferences – Is there a Creative Commons license? a link to their terms of use? Some sites will provide links, citations, or guidelines on how to credit their images and content.”

In my proposed work, I will take my lead from Future Learn, with the addition of a link, and use these lines under my image: “Edward III © The British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection. From Nova Statuta c. 1451. Made available under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication” and in the reference list I will write:

Detail of an Historiated Initial ‘C'(ome) of Edward III, at the Beginning of His Statutes. From Nova Statuta , from Edward III to Henry VI, Ending in the Year 1451. between 1451 and c. 1480, bequeathed to the British Museum in 1941 by Mrs. Henry Yates Thompson. The British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, London. The British Library. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.