You might know about public domain music, but what is public domain video, and how can you take advantage of it as a video professional without getting pulled into the undertow of legal terms? Before you go wild with public domain footage, be sure you understand how to find, use and credit it. Read on to learn the proper use of public domain video clips.
What is public domain video?
Put simply, public domain video is any video not bound by copyright law. This video can be used by anyone without cost or permission. Sounds great for a content creator on a budget, right? Not so fast. There are rules binding the use of public domain footage.
- The use of public domain videos for commercial purposes has different rules
- Only 70 years after the death of the copyright holder does video become eligible for public domain status, and these laws vary by country
- Video footage that contains third-party intellectual property does not qualify as public domain video
How does video enter the public domain?
You'll need to research the origin of the desired video clips you want to use to determine if it truly is free public domain stock footage. Video footage qualifies as public domain in the following events:
- The video clips are produced by a government and are required by law to enter the public domain.
- The producer forfeited its copyright and designated the footage to the public domain
- A video or any other artwork enters the public domain 70 years following the copyright holder's death.
Is public domain video free?
The short answer is: sometimes. As you will see in our research of sources for public domain video, laws vary depending on the source and use, so do your homework.
Public domain video footage for commercial use
Use caution with public domain video archives, clips or footage as they require specific credits from the author or source. Giving proper credit can help you avoid the total nightmare of being confronted with a takedown order or, worse, a lawsuit! The last thing you want is a legal mess that affects not only your published piece but your clients, your reputation and future livelihood.
Public domain footage or archives that contain celebrities, public figures or registered intellectual property may be considered out of the public domain use for commercial work. If in doubt, contact the publisher or creator for written permission to use their work.
Free public domain videos for commercial use are harder to come by, so do your homework to avoid legal heartache and retribution.
Where to find public domain video footage for non-commercial use
So you're looking for free public domain stock footage or historical archives. Perhaps you are producing a documentary or an instructional video, not for profit. The good news is, this is an easier find than commercial-use video.
Here are some of the most widely-used websites for downloading free public domain footage. As with any source, check and double-check copyright to see if a work is legally owned before you use it!
Pond5's Public Domain Project
A well-known resource for royalty-free footage, Pond5 contains 25 million video clips and has long been a resource for filmmakers. Pond5's Public Domain Project offers 1,000-plus free with a catch. All videos are without sound and most have a duration of around 1 minute. You will need to create an account to access the HD clips.
Pexels is a free stock photo and video site with almost no caveats on use except the note that "depicted content like trademarks, logos, or brands may still be protected by privacy, copyright or trademark rights." The content is current, including 4K aerial footage, vertical video, food and landscapes.
Similar to Pexels, Vidsplay stock video footage can be used free for both personal and commercial projects. Works can be edited and remixed with only the requirement that you add a visible credit link to the company on your website, film credits, or in the description on your social media post.
With over 4,000 clips, this collection of free public domain stock footage is an excellent resource for finding abstract, nature, and motion graphics. Motion Elements limits downloads to five per week, and the only way to increase your download limit is to invite friends to join the platform. There are, however, no restrictions on use, so this is a true source of free public domain footage.
The Internet Archive is a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Prelinger Archive provides access to six million videos (including 2 million Television News programs). Only a free account is required to upload to the Internet Archive. Within the Internet Archive is Prelinger Archive, containing 17,000 historical films from educational institutes, commercial advertisements and historical footage dating back to 1903!
The Public Domain Review
This online source and not-for-profit site founded in 2011 focuses on "the surprising, the strange, and the beautiful," including public domain material free to enjoy, share, and use without restriction. From Cold War-era animated films to spooky monster stories, this archive is an excellent source for those offbeat clips you need to tell your narrative or documentary.
The National Screening Room
The Library of Congress National Screening Room is home to a sizable public domain video archive. Free video clips are downloadable as both 5 MB MP4 and ProRes 422 MOV/Quicktime downloads for your high-end film.
However, rights assessment is the user's responsibility. Some titles don't have registration information, and the use of some works may be restricted by law. According to The National Screen Room, "Additionally, some works may still be protected by copyright in the United States or some foreign countries. The written permission of the copyright owners in materials not in the public domain is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions."
Public Domain Footage
This site provides public domain and/or royalty-free videos, which, as you should know, may have copyright restrictions. There are no licensing fees per se, but there is payment required for some newsreels, short archival footage clips and pre-packaged collections. You'll find footage from BBC, National Geographic and NBC, among others.
Shot taken from Artgrid
To infinity and beyond! NASA generously offers free use of its massive space exploration archives, but there are strict rules depending on usage. NASA does not promote or endorse or appear to promote or endorse a commercial product, service or activity, so commercial use is tricky. You'll need to carefully sort through language such as this to determine the legality of use:
Many NASA images and selections of film and video footage produced and publicly released by NASA may be used for advertising purposes. However, there are rules regarding the appearance of NASA astronauts' or NASA employees' names, likenesses or other personality traits in advertising materials. Astronauts or employees who are currently employed by NASA cannot have their names, likenesses or other personality traits displayed in any advertisements or marketing material. Former NASA Astronauts or employees who no longer work for the U.S. Government can grant permission for the use of their names, likenesses or other personality traits in their discretion, but their former affiliation with NASA may not be used to promote any product, service or activity. For deceased astronauts or employees, their estates may retain rights in the deceased person's name, likeness or other personality traits, so permission may still be needed. NASA may not grant the right to use names, likenesses or other personality traits on behalf of these individuals.
What is Creative Commons?
If you're having a difficult time finding public domain video, consider Creative Commons. This platform offers a variety of licenses that range in usage allowances. The licenses allow the copyright holder to share their work while maintaining ownership. As with any public domain video, older works (usually 50-70 years) are often copyright-free, while contemporary works may not be. Find more information about Creative Commons licenses on its FAQ page.
Public domain video clips are plentiful if you know where to look (and we just told you!). However, depending on usage, you still have to pay attention to attribution and pay for use in some cases. If you have more immediate needs or specific clips, consider using Artgrid for access to discover story-driven footage from today's top cinematographers around the world. The best thing is that you can use the Artgrid footage on any platform for any use without worrying about any copyright issues. This frees up creators to focus on their creative work and process instead of worrying about legal issues.