The Public Domain: An Indie-Designer's Best Friend

by - 13:40

Notice: This is not legal advice! Do not take legal advice from strangers on the internet!

If you are self-publishing your games, you are going to reach a point where you realise that you need artwork or icons and that this stuff can be expensive!

Public Domain resources are here to rescue you. I started developing Directors Cut: The Card Game when I realised that there were heaps of really cool, very high-quality promotional posters for old movies that happen to exist in the public domain. This means that although some movie studies might argue otherwise, these images are free for anybody to use in pretty much any way they like - they are owned by the public. So I could take them and freely use them to illustrate my cards.

This dog is totally cool being used in commercial products. The photo is released under a CC0 licence. (Source)
Images and other artworks enter the public domain after a set amount of time (which depends on when they were published, because this law keeps changing), whereupon they become free to use. And they can be used for profit or otherwise. They may also enter the public domain because they were produced by a public organisation (a library, for instance), or because the creator has explicitly given their work a public domain licence (which they cannot later revoke, by the way). Some creators may also release their work using a Creative Commons licence, which often means you can use the works with some stipulations.

Images in the public domain include many images produced by the US government (lots of maps, wildlife images, political images, etc), images of currency in some countries, flags in some countries, old promotional materials, old book illustrations (and text, of course), old comics, images from old movies, and many many historical photographs.

You are often free to take these images and do what you like with them - including putting them into your games.

A Few Words of Caution

There are a few complications when dealing with public domain images though.

  • Firstly, avoid using any image that has an identified person on it. The image may well be public domain, but the person might object to how you use their likeness - and they are often well within their rights to force you to stop producing your product and claim damages. You can get around this restriction if you know the person signed a model release document for the image. There are also some other rules if your work is satirical, but you should be careful. Even historical pictures can be troublesome because the descendants of that person can still object - see Bob Marley or Martin Luther King for examples. For this reason, I decided against using old 1920's gangster mugshots in another game of mine (still in the design process).
  • Some rules apply to reproducing currency. For US currency, for example, it cannot be double-sided and has to be either 150% bigger or 75% smaller than a real note. You really don't want to fall afoul of that rule.
  • Some countries object to how their flag is used. Singapore, for example, wants their flag to be treated with dignity (not on swimwear, for example) and impose a ton of laws on its use (which only really apply if you're in Singapore).
  • Be wary of company logos which might suggest that they are endorsing you.
  • Avoid using images of private properties, like homes. But this doesn't really matter if a building seems public - like you could easily use an image of some skyscraper without worrying.
  • Some companies are weirdly powerful and have even managed to change public domain laws to "protect" their content. So, even though Mickey Mouse should be public domain, he isn't. It's worth double-checking if you're not sure about a specific item or if you still see an image or logo used regularly.
  • Updated materials will have a new copyright placed on them - so new translations of classic works and old movies that have been digitally modified or colourised are problematic. Check in each specific circumstance.
  • Check out this link for a few more fine-print legal matters.

Where to Find Public Domain Works

Wikipedia has a great resource of where you can find some high-quality public domain works. Here are a few sources that I really like.

Creative Commons

Also keep your eyes peeled for cool creators who release their works under a Creative Commons licence. Creative Commons licences are quite varied and stipulate how you can modify the particular work and if you can use it for commercial purposes. Usually, you can't use them for commercial purposes, but they can still be useful.

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