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Finding free-to-use resources: Overview of public domain and creative commons materials

Discover how to find and use freely-available resources. Learn about creative commons licencing and public domain materials.

Using freely available images, videos and other resources

When should I use a freely-available (public domain or creative commons) resource?

University staff and students benefit daily from the exemptions under the Copyright Act that allow copying for educational, research and study activities. However there are times when those provisions don't apply.

For example, you may be:

  • writing a blog;
  • finalising a book for publication;
  • pulling together a commercial proposal;
  • compiling a report as part of your consultancy;
  • creating or updating a MOOC.

In each of these circumstances there are no exemptions under the Copyright Act should you want to include any text, image, music or video that has been created by someone else (a third party). This means that you would need to:

  1. create your own material to use instead;
  2. find and use a freely-available resource; or
  3. obtain permission from the copyright owner to use the item.

What are freely available items?

In this context, freely-available items means materials for which the copyright has expired (public domain materials), or material that the copyright holder has made available for re-use (creative commons licensed materials).

That an item is available on the internet does not mean that it is free for anyone to copy and use. You should always start with the assumption that any third-party image or video (or other material) is subject to copyright, unless it is stated otherwise or you can establish that it is in the public domain.

Which items are subject to copyright?

The vast majority of items are subject to copyright. This includes most online book and journal content available in the library.

Can I link to resources available online?

Yes, but there are a couple of caveats:

  1. Make sure that you are not linking to websites or materials which themselves infringe copyright (e.g. contain pirated works; or blogs which reproduce information without permission).
  2. You should always link to the third-party website's homepage, or to a subpage which is clearly identifiable as part of a third-party website. Linking to subpages which are not clearly identifiable as belonging to a third party, or directly to documents available on the website (also known as 'deep linking'), can be problematic. While deep linking is not a breach of copyright, it has the risk of resulting in claims that you are engaging in misleading conduct or are passing off the third party's material as your own material.
  3. Keep in mind that most of the library's electronic resources are subscription-based and cannot be linked to. Access to subscription-based resources is restricted by authenticated login to staff and students of the university.

But I thought that university staff and students had special rights to use copyright and licenced materials?

The Copyright Act includes a number of provisions that allow copyright material to be used for teaching (parts VA and VB, and sections 200AB and 28). If the purpose for which you want to use the materials falls outside of the special provisions for educational organisations then you are not covered by the Copyright Act. 

Different classes of freely available items

Items available through creative commons (CC) licensing

Images, videos or other resources with a CC licence can be legally shared and re-used for free. While the creator retains copyright, you can copy and distribute the image or video under the conditions stipulated in the licence.

There are a range of different CC licenses which provide you with different rights in terms of how you can use the image or resource. View the different CC licenses at: If you would like to use a CC work you will need to firstly check that the way in which you intent to use the image (or resource) is allowed by the CC licence. When you incorporate the CC work into your own material, make sure that you still correctly reference the CC work, provide a link to the relevant CC licence and indicate if you made any changes to the work. 

Items in the public domain (i.e. copyright has expired)

Images, videos and other items in the public domain can be used for free.

Most images, videos or other items eventually lose their copyright protection. When this happens they are considered to be in the public domain, making them free for everyone to use. It generally takes many years before an item falls into the public domain, and the length of time varies according to a number of factors, including the type of item, and where it was published.

View a list of different types of items and their copyright periods.

Items for which you or the University of Adelaide hold copyright.

You are free to re-use materials for which you hold the copyright. If you are undertaking an activity in the course of your employment, you may also use images, videos or other materials for which copyright is held by the University of Adelaide (even if it was created by a different department or school). 

Keep in mind that if the item has been published you, or the university, may have assigned copyright to the publisher as part of the publishing process. If you have assigned copyright to the publisher you will need to obtain permission from the publisher to re-use the item.

Using material that is not freely available

If you want to use third-party materials that are not freely available you will need to get permission from the copyright owner or an authorised licensor. 

The process to obtain permission can be lengthy and you will need to be persistent. View information on locating copyright holders. In some cases you may be required to pay a fee for permission or a license.

Having gained formal permission to use the material you will need to ensure that:

  • All permissions are fully documented. If you are using the item for university purposes, rather than personal purposes, records of permissions must be kept in accordance with the University Records Policy.
  • You only use the materials within the scope of the permissions obtained. For example, you must not make changes to an item for which you did not receive permission to modify, while you cannot use the material on a website if you only obtained permission to reproduce it in hardcopy.
  • You do not use the item beyond the permitted timeframe, if the permission is time-restricted.

Further Reading

Help and assistance

Contact the liaison librarians for your department or subject for advice on finding and using free-to-use images and videos.

OA vs CC

In general, open access is about enabling unrestricted, free access to peer-reviewed scholarly literature via the internet. More information on open access is available on the Open Access Resources Libguide.

Creative commons is a licensing system designed to facilitate open access. There are other licensing systems but creative commons is the best known.



This document contains general information only and does not constitute legal advice. Always check with the copyright specialist in your department if you are unsure.