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Finding Public Domain Sources for Your Class Essay

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Are you looking for primary sources for your humanities or social studies school projects? Primary sources are original materials or research. By comparison, secondary sources are those materials that talk about primary sources. For example, an autobiography is a primary source and a biography is a secondary source. Public domain sources be very useful as primary sources.

For example, websites that digitize materials placed in the public domain are great as primary sources of information. These materials are not subject to copyright laws and are freely available to all.

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Definition of Public Domain

Public domain refers to those materials, such as books, art, and papers that are not covered by copyright law. Thus, they are available freely to all.

Some factors that determine public domain in the United States include:

  • All works published before 1924 are in public domain.
  • Works published after 1923 but before 1964 have an initial 28 years of copyright status. If the owner does not renew the copyright before the 28-year period, the work becomes public domain. Timely renewal gives the owner another 95 years of copyright protection.
Note:  Copyright laws are extensive and strict! Make sure you research thoroughly before assuming works are in the public domain. One way to find good public domain material is to access it through indexed sites. These sites do their own careful research and you can feel safe that the materials are in the public domain.

Public Domain Archives

Student researching public domain sources for essay

Refer to the following resources in your search for public domain sources and materials.

Fair Use Blog

The Copyright & Fair Use site, hosted by Stanford University, provides an overview of public domain. It lists four reasons works enter the public domain:

  • Expired copyright
  • Owner forgot to renew
  • Owner places into public domain
  • Not protected by copyright law

The site provides explanations about dedicated works, clip art use, government work and much more. There is also a blog with answers to many questions.

Online Books

The Online Books Page website claims it has over 2 million books indexed and available freely online. The books are full text readable online, but they may not have all illustrations or appendices. The site also lists free online serial publications such as magazines, newspapers, and journals.

Public Domain Review

PublicDomainReview.org was created in 2011 to provide access to public domain materials in art and history, plus “other compelling” material.

The collection includes primary source images, video, and audio recordings gathered from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Smithsonian, and the National Library of the Netherlands, plus many other institutions. For example,  you can find a digitized version of John Locke’s Method for Common Place Books, published in 1685

Center for the Study of the Public Domain

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain has extensive resources and information about the public domain. There, you’ll find public domain laws, notifications of materials as they enter public domain, and links to public domain materials and original research.

Public Domain Primary Sources

Finding primary sources through public domain materials for your MLA, APA or  Chicago style format paper is exciting and fun. The websites listed above are just a small sample of what you can find online. Write a unique paper with fun sources for your humanities or social studies paper. Remember to double-check to make sure you are not using someone’s copyrighted material without permission to avoid plagiarism.

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