Should You Release Things You’ve Created Into The Public Domain?

2013 Artwork Should you release things into the public domain

(Note: The usual “I am not a lawyer” disclaimers apply to this article and it shouldn’t be considered proper legal advice. But that probably should be obvious anyway.)

Well, following on from yesterday’s article, I thought that I’d look at the subject of the public domain in a slightly different way. I am, of course, talking about the subject of adding things to it.

Yes, if you want to, you can release as much of your own original work into the public domain as you like, for anyone to use in whatever way that they want with no restrictions whatsoever.

But should you?

How do you release things into the public domain? And what can you release into the public domain?

First of all, you need to own the copyright of literally every part of whatever you are releasing into the public domain. You can’t uncopyright something by anyone else [or containing things by anyone else] without their explicit permission to do so (preferably a clearly-written statement etc…).

Likewise, if you’re making fan art/fan fiction or a parody of something – then it may be “fair use” in some countries, but it isn’t something you can release into the public domain (or even under any kind of Creative Commons licence) since it contains copyrighted material.

However, at the same time, it’s illegal to sell fan art – but sharing and displaying it in a way that doesn’t generate any profit is (probably) legal in America at least (and many major websites seem to be based in the US). Alas, the legal situation with regard to fan art/fan fiction in the UK seems to be a lot more restrictive….

Since copyright is something which is automatically given to pretty much anything that is written, photographed, filmed, drawn, painted, published etc… you have to actively release things into the public domain if you want to do this.

There seem to be several ways to release things into the public domain- you can use a “Creative Commons – Public Domain” licence (or a very similar “Creative Commons – Attribution”/”CC-BY” licence, where the only condition attached to the work is that anyone who uses it must mention who originally produced it).

Likewise, you can just place a statement next to the work in question or on the work itself stating that you are releasing it without copyright. Whilst I don’t know if this has any legal authority, it’s a fairly clear piece of evidence in case anyone tries to sue anyone. You can also write a long statement/disclaimer which states that you also won’t enforce your copyrights in countries that don’t allow people to release things without copyright.

Is there a middle ground between copyright and the public domain?


If you want people to be able to share your work freely, but you still want to retain some control/ownership of it – then a good halfway house between the public domain and traditional copyright are Creative Commons licences.

There are several different types of licence that you can use, but the one I tend to use fairly often for my art and comics is the “Attribution – Non-commercial – No Derivatives” licence (CC-BY-NC-ND). This licence allows people to share anything released under it as long as they say who produced it, don’t sell it and don’t alter it in any way.

This, to me, is a good way to keep ownership of most of my art and comics but to also allow people to share it if they want to. It’s also, to me, something of a statement that says “I’m not going to be an asshole about copyright” too.

Although I use the “no derivatives” part to protect against people modifying my work slightly and passing it off as their own, I personally (with regard to my own work only) don’t consider it to include things like most types of fan art [provided that it’s clearly labelled as fan art and uses a different art style to my original art] and things people make when they follow my “how to draw” guides.

In fact, if you make something using one of my drawing guides, then you can consider it to be your own work. However, you can’t modify the guide itself, even though you’re allowed to share it.

But, many people consider the “No derivatives” part of the licence to cover these things (eg: fan art, fan fiction etc..) with relation to their own work.

Why do people release things into the public domain?

– If it’s something you aren’t going to sell or compile or use in any way at a possible future date, then you might as well let other people use it. What’s the point of hoarding things you’ve made until 70+ years after you’ve died?

– Opposition to current copyright laws. If you’re a creative person, then releasing at least some of your work into the public domain is a much better and much more principled form of protest about our (ridiculously excessive) copyright laws than downloading/torrenting/copying things. I personally have no real moral objections to people downloading/torrenting things, but I wouldn’t really agree that it’s a proper form of protest though.

– Public-spirited generosity.

– Because you’re eager to see what other people can do with your work (although a Creative Commons ShareAlike licence also allows you to do this, albeit with a few restrictions).

– Publicity/free advertising. Copyright-free stuff can attract people to your website and might also make them notice other things you’ve made which you’ve decided to keep the copyright to.

Think through the implications and be careful.

Once you release something into the public domain, you permanently give up all ownership of it. If someone finds a way to make a million from selling it, then you have no right to demand even a penny in royalties from them. If someone changes and modifies it beyond all recognition in a way that you don’t like, there’s nothing you can do.

If someone else claims authorship of it then, although it’s still basically plagiarism (and they can’t claim any copyright ownership unless they’ve heavily modified it) by most people’s definition of the word, I don’t think that it can really be considered plagiarism in legal terms.

In other words, I think that you can’t sue people if they claim authorship of something you’ve released into the public domain (however, they can’t really sue people for copying it or claiming authorship either). But, once again, I’m not a lawyer or an expert on the law…

So, be careful what you release into the public domain.

Generally speaking, although I haven’t released that much into the public domain, the things I tend to release are very simple images which could be useful to other people (like this comic template) or drawings which I don’t really care too much about (like this random gothic/1980s-style sketch of a pyramid) but which people could use to make cool things out of.

However, I wouldn’t even dream of releasing any of my comics or articles into the public domain.

At the end of the day, use your own judgement and remember that, once you put something into the public domain, you can’t take it out of the public domain.


Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂

2 comments on “Should You Release Things You’ve Created Into The Public Domain?

  1. […] Anyway, a bit later the same day, I made a random sketch of a pyramid to test out whether I could create a particular effect on Paint Shop Pro. I liked this drawing, but it wasn’t really good enough to include in any of my “Today’s Art” posts, so I decided to post it separately. Since it was a fairly basic drawing and I’d written an article about the public domain earlier, I decided to release this drawing without copyright. This, of course, inspired an article about whether you should ever release things without copyright. […]

  2. […] “Rarity, Creativity And The Internet” “Should You Release Things You’ve Created Into The Public Domain?” […]

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