Tapping into the Creative Consciousness: Discovering and Downloading Public Domain Materials

The only problem with file sharing and “free content” is that everything you could ever want to share and download is illegal (copyright protected and not authorized for free sharing), right? Not so fast. There’s actually a lot of interesting content out there that isn’t protected by copyright, or is licensed under terms that allow free sharing, that most people don’t know about. Here’s how to find it.

Finding Classics On Project Gutenberg

Roughly 90 percent of all books published between 1923 and 1964 are not copyright protected. This is because most authors failed to extend their copyright. So, you can probably download most of the classic books out there. To protect yourself, however, always verify the status of the work. Project Gutenberg is an excellent place to find legal and free content. It’s one of the coolest sites on the Internet for classic texts.


Archive.org is another good, safe, site. You can find almost anything here from how to survive a nuclear attack to old classic films. The site isn’t so great for images though, but it makes up for it with the sheer amount of content it has cataloged. One thing: not all of the content here is in the public domain. You must apply a filter for public works, but it’s not too hard to do in the advanced search.

Legal Torrent Sites

Downloading torrents is fun, but it can also be dangerous. If you’re not careful, you could find yourself on the ugly side of a nasty lawsuit. Here’s how to mitigate the risk when using bittorrent clients: stick to legal search sites and only download clients (software apps used to find torrents) from companies that actively discourage the downloading of illegal content.

Some examples of safe sites include eTree, BitTorrent Bundle, ClearBits, Fanatics4Classics, FrostClick, SuprNova, SXSW Torrents, TAS Video, and C.Dominik Bodi.

These torrent sites aren’t the only free ones with legal content on them, but they are some of the more popular ones. Now, beware of torrent sites in general. There are many of them out there that link to illegal content. Even if you find legal content available on these sites, it’s probably best to stay out of those neighborhoods.

Why? Because you don’t always know what you’re downloading. Sometimes, files are mislabeled. So, you may end up downloading something and getting something else. And, if that something else is protected by copyright, you could end up in big trouble – especially if law enforcement is monitoring the site for pirates. It’s just not worth the risk.

Visit Europeana

If you’ve ever wanted to discover the old world, and honestly who hasn’t, visit Europeana. It’s an online portal where you can explore Europe’s cultural collections. Now, not all of the stuff in this portal is actually in the public domain, so you need to apply special filters when downloading stuff from here.

Once you’ve done your initial search, do a “refined search” by copyright. Check the “CCO” option and you’ll get hits for items published under an open license. This content is usually free for the taking.

Check Out Wikimedia

Wikimedia is where all of Wikipedia’s media lives. It’s where you go when you want free images. Anything from 17th century anatomical engravings to user-submitted snapshots of a shopping mall to blueprints for famous buildings can be found here.

Use the category section to make searching easier on yourself. While they do try to organize everything for you in an easy format, it does take some getting used to. Some photos may be used freely, while others will require crediting in the form of a citation if you choose to use them elsewhere.

The Library Of Congress

The Library of Congress is another great place to hang out. You can find lots of photographs here. It’s actually one of the best places to hunt for stock photos if you need them. The copyright status of each photo sounds a little ambiguous with the phrasing, “no known copyright restrictions.”

According to the Library, this means that either the copyright is expired and the work is in the public domain, the copyright is in the PD for a different reason like failure to follow the formerly required formalities under copyright law, the institution owns the copyright but isn’t interested in exercising control, or the institution has legal rights that authorize others to use the work without restrictions.

As long as you click on “no known copyright restrictions,” next to the image, you will be fine.

Anna Jude has a deep passion for research and modern resources. As an educator, she especially enjoys discussing options and sources for discovering new ideas, art, and more in the digital age.

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