Public Domain Videos: What are they and how are they used?

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Filming quality videos is expensive. For studio‑quality work, you need the proper lighting, cameras, editing equipment, and more. You also need time and lots of it.

It’s no wonder that creatives look into using public domain video or licensing stock footage. Whether you’re an art school filmmaker or are trying to create video ads for your business, video content that you don’t physically have to create yourself can save you time and money.

But what exactly is public domain video, and how can you use it in your creative works? How does it compare to paid stock footage, and what’s best for your project?

What is a public domain video?

A public domain video is a video that has entered the public domain and is not subject to copyright because the copyright protection has expired, or the creator has forfeited their copyright and made it available to the public. This allows anyone to use a video clip without having to ask permission to do so. For example, some content produced by the government becomes free to use.

How do videos enter the public domain?

In the United States, a video enters into the public domain under the following stipulations:

  • The footage was developed by a federal government employee for official purposes – governments are obligated by law to make the footage public. 
  • The author who produced the video has forfeited their copyright(s) and decides to enter the footage into the public domain.
  • Any video clip (and other creative works) enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the creator.

This list is not exhaustive, but the most common ways video footage enters the public space. Here’s a list of conditions that would cause a video to age into the public domain. Please note that this only applies to the United States – further research on this topic would be needed depending on the territory:

  • Any video made in 1924 or earlier (as of January 1, 2020)
  • Videos made before 1977 that were published without a copyright notice
  • Videos made before 1989 that weren’t registered within five years of the date of publication
  • Videos published before 1964 if the copyright wasn’t renewed 28 years later

Does it sound complicated? It is. Copyright laws have changed multiple times over the past 100 years, and are sure to change further.

Are videos on YouTube public domain?

Maybe. It depends on the owner, but videos on YouTube are not automatically entered into the public domain as the original video content is owned solely by the creator. In some cases, the creator will make their work available in the public domain, but this isn’t the default option. In fact, YouTube requires those who upload videos to certify that they own the copyright on the content they upload to YouTube.
If you want to find free content on YouTube, look for content with a Creative Commons copyright license, and from there, read the fine print to see if that Creative Commons license allows for your intended use. However, just because something has a Creative Commons license doesn’t mean you can use it any way you please – some Creative Commons licenses state that you can’t use the footage for commercial purposes.

How is public domain video typically used?

Public domain video can be reused, modified, and incorporated into your creative or editorial works however you choose, even for commercial purposes. A few popular ways to use public domain video in creative works include B‑roll footage, background footage, or videos playing on a television screen in the background of another shot.

Can I use public domain videos for commercial uses?

From a copyright perspective, Yes. You can use public domain video clips for commercial use including your own films, commercials, or other video content. You can even air public domain videos for free on a TV network. In fact, one of the reasons the movie It’s a Wonderful Life became a holiday classic is because its image copyright wasn’t renewed and it entered the public domain. TV networks then began to air it as a way to fill air time without paying extra fees.

What are the limitations of public domain video for commercial or creative projects?

Arguably, the biggest limitation of relying on public domain video clips (whether aged into the public domain or donated to the public domain) is searching capabilities and selection.

For example, if your creative project needs B‑roll of a crowded street, you might want to turn to existing footage so you don’t have to capture that content yourself. If you want to use public domain video, you need to ensure the desired footage is officially in the public domain.

The films and other videos in the public domain aren’t always easy to find and download. When you do find them, you have to watch tons of footage to find exactly what you need. Although Wikipedia has a list of films in the public domain, it doesn’t have a scene‑by‑scene breakdown to help you find what you need. If you were hoping to use a public domain video clip to save you the time of creating your own content, you might spend it all just digging through your options.

And you might not find anything to suit your project after hours of digging. Videos in the public domain are well‑aged, which may or may not fit your overall creative vision. Let’s go back to the example of B‑roll of a crowded street. If you’re working on a modern video about population density in cities, using black and white footage of Nashville, TN in 1963 probably isn’t the best fit for your project. If you’re working on a documentary about the civil rights movement, then it might work great for you.

Anyone can donate their work to the public domain which means you might find yourself sorting through a lot of footage filmed on a second‑generation iPhone before you find footage that will work for you. If you need studio‑quality footage, it may not fit the bill.

There are other kinds of Creative Commons licenses that can also be difficult to navigate. If you’re not careful in your search, you might find yourself using footage that has a different Creative Commons license, such as a noncommercial license. If you use that footage, even by accident, you can inadvertently violate another creator’s copyright.

One other limitation of public domain videos is that they might not actually be copyright‑free. Even if the video itself doesn’t have a copyright attached to it, it might contain images of things that are subject to copyright or other rights copyrighted, such as logos or a particular cartoon mouse. It also might not have proper releases attached to it concerning any people who might be in the video itself. Both of these could leave you open to legal action.

What are the benefits of using stock footage rather than public domain video?

The biggest benefits of using stock footage over public domain video are:

  • Stock footage videos are easier to search to find what you need, 
  • Stock footage videos are vetted for quality, and
  • Stock footage videos guarantee your legal right to use those images with the correct license.

Stock videos purchased from reputable companies are sorted in ways that make it easy to find exactly what you need. That drone B‑roll footage you needed? iStock has an entire page dedicated to aerial footage and dozens of other commonly requested videos. Videos you’ll find on stock websites are also vetted for quality. That means footage you’ll find on stock video sites was filmed with state‑of‑the‑art cameras. Plus, you can make any changes or edits you want to stock footage, such as converting it to black and white, adding filters, and other modifications.

Finally, stock footage from reputable websites will usually come with comes with a guarantee that you have all the rights you need to use that footage. Where public domain videos might contain copyrighted images like logos, sites like iStock ensure that you won’t find yourself at the center of legal action, or we’ll pay you up to $10,000 per asset to cover costs. We also have an extended indemnification available to purchase that increases coverage to $250,000 per asset.

If you’ve done the research and have found that public domain videos aren’t giving you what you’re looking for, iStock offers a vast library of stock footage that may suit your needs. Start your search today

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