YouTube has a veritable cornucopia of content available on its platform, with the overwhelming majority of it being created by regular YouTube users, not large corporations. This can often lead to the misconception that content on YouTube is “free”, or in the public domain as it is officially termed. The truth is a little messier than that, but we’ll walk you through everything.
So, are YouTube videos public domain? – This can be a grey area and depends on the copyrights given by the video owner and the age of the content itself. But the quick answer is, no. Most public domain content has no owners or the copyright has expired. Most YouTube content is fairly new works and therefore covered by assumed copyright.
Of course, we’re assuming you’re interested in whether a video is in the public domain because you wish to use the video for something. If that is the case, there are other options to consider.
Now, onto the details!
What is Public Domain?
Public domain is the term used for creative works that have no exclusive intellectual property rights. If you were to use material that is in the public domain, nobody could lawfully claim ownership of your content—though it won’t necessarily stop someone from trying.
Creative work can find itself in the public domain for several reasons. The creator of said work can waive intellectual property rights, for example, and release it into the public domain from the beginning.
There are also certain kinds of works that are simply not allowed to be copyrighted, an example of which being the formulae of Newtonian physics. Many works were created before any meaningful copyright law existed, and so were never protected, to begin with. There was no copyright registry when Shakespeare was writing his plays, for example.
Finally, there is a time factor involved in the passing of intellectual property into the public domain, but this is a little tricky to detail.
Books and Software
For example, any computer software created before 1974 is deemed public domain.
Meanwhile, books typically pass into the public domain a certain amount of years after the author’s death. For America, this term is 95 years; however, it is 70 years for many other countries.
All of this means that for America in 2020, any book published before 1925 is in the public domain. You’re probably starting to see why it’s a little tricky to cover all the bases here.
If you want to learn more about making YouTube videos from books then check out my deep dive blog into what can you and can’t do without getting in trouble.
Moving on to music, there is typically a clear distinction between musical compositions and musical recordings.
Compositions (essentially, the melodies and lyrics) are subject to broadly the same copyright terms as books. This is what led to the infamous case of Warner/Chappell suing people for singing “Happy Birthday to You”. Recordings, on the other hand, can be thought as more akin to property.
If you’ve ever heard of stories like Michael Jackson owning Beatles songs, this is how it was possible. The owner of the recording has the ownership rights of that recording; however, the artist is still free to perform their music, and will typically earn songwriter’s royalties.
But how does this translate to music in the public domain? Well, for the most part, you are free to cover music that is not in the public domain.
You should be aware that anything sounding too close to the original recording will likely get flagged by YouTube’s automatic copyright protection. Still, you won’t actually be doing anything wrong.
Copyrighted recordings, on the other hand, while still subject to an eventual transition to the public domain, have not been around long enough for there to be any public domain recordings. In 2020, the 95-year time limit on copyright extends back to 1925. In 1925, musical recordings were almost entirely classical music, and were still being outsold by sheet music! Some recordings will start going into the public domain in 2021, however.
When it comes to using music in my videos I use LickD. They have a wide range of popular tracks and artists. They have a simple fee system and you pay based on how many views you get on average. There is more information on their website.
Movies and film, in general, follow the same rules as books, though the terms will vary from country to country.
For America, the term of copyright is once again 95 years, and anything produced before 1925 is automatically considered public domain. That term is rolling, meaning that in 2021, anything created before 1926 will be in the public domain, and so on.
There are several works of film that are in the public domain because the creator has intentionally released their movie that way. Or, in the case of the cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, accidentally released into the public domain as the distributor forgot to file a copyright notice!
Public Domain on YouTube
YouTube does not presently have a means of flagging videos as containing public domain works. As such, there is no clear way to identify public domain content short of going off and researching yourself.
It is important to remember that the descriptions are not always accurate. If someone posts a video claiming it is public domain, and you then use that video and get sued because it is not public domain, the fault will still be with you.
You may be considering using public domain works in your monetized videos, and you have every right to do that. You could post an unmodified public domain work in its entirety on YouTube, and you would not be breaking their terms and conditions or any copyright law. You should be aware, however, that YouTube does have specific other rules in place that could affect you. For example, they have a policy on re-using content.
This essentially prevents people from just reposting existing work and monetizing the video, even if they are legally allowed to use the work.
One example of this would be a music compilation video made up of songs that are in the public domain. Another example would be uploading a public domain film.
The point of this policy is to prevent YouTube from being flooded with opportunistic attempts to make money for little effort. If a video is in the public domain, there is little other reason to post such a video. If you are modifying the video in a significant way, however, you should be safe from YouTube’s policies.
YouTube’s Standard License
We’ve covered what you can do with public domain works, but what about YouTube’s standard license?
From the uploader’s perspective, YouTube’s standard license grants broadcasting rights to YouTube. Basically, this means that the video is only licensed for watching on YouTube, and cannot be reproduced or redistributed without your express consent.
In agreeing to this license, you are also agreeing to YouTube’s terms regarding uploading videos. Still, the most significant factor is that you have control over your video when it comes to other people re-using it.
You will be entirely within your licensing terms to deny—or grant—permission for any use of your video. This applies equally to small individual YouTubers and multi-million dollar media companies.
If you are not the uploader, and you are considering using another YouTuber’s content, you will need to get permission from the uploader unless it is Creative Commons. We’ll get to that shortly.
Now, the reality of the majority of YouTube videos is that using a small sample of another video will not result in any legal action taken against you. For one thing, a small enough sample would be considered fair use, and not worth arguing over for the creator. But also, most YouTube creators cannot afford the expensive legal fees of attempting to sue someone.
If you use significant portions of another YouTuber’s video—or the whole thing—expect to get your video taken down unless you have the permission of the uploader. For larger corporations, such as record labels and media companies, using even a few seconds of their content can be enough to get a video automatically penalized.
For such companies, you are unlikely to get permission, or even a response if you request it, so it would be best to consider that a non-option.
So, we mentioned that public domain and just grabbing content and hoping for the best weren’t your only options for re-using YouTube video. When a YouTube video is uploaded, the uploader can choose between the standard YouTube license and a Creative Commons license.
There are many variations of the Creative Commons license; however, YouTube only offers one of those variations. This is known as a CC BY license, but what is it?
Let’s start with Creative Commons as a whole. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that makes sharing and re-using original works and knowledge easy and free. There is a lot to this organization beyond their licenses, but this article is not about Creative Commons, so we’re going to stick the licensing.
By using a Creative Commons license, you have a properly worded, completely legal document that lays out the licensing terms of a given piece of content.
Using this kind of license makes sharing content easier because there is no ambiguity or uncertainty about whether content can be used. The answer is yes; the only question is what is required of the entity using the material.
For example, CC0 is their base-level license, and, practically speaking, is the same as public domain. There are no requirements of compensation or attribution on CC0 works, and there are no restrictions on how you can use it. Other versions of the license do have limitations on how the work can be used, or requirements in order to use it.
Still, we’re only going to go into detail on the license that YouTube allows you to choose.
CC BY License
The CC BY License allows for the sharing, copying, and redistribution of the licensed material in any medium or format. You are free to transform, remix, and add to the material for any purpose, including commercial.
Perhaps most significant is the fact that the creator of the material cannot revoke any of the freedoms you have been granted. This only applies as long as you follow the terms of the license, however.
The only requirements under this license are that you must give credit to the creator, link to the complete license, and make it clear if any changes were made (and what they are). It is also essential that you do not make it appear as though the creator endorses your work.
Another facet of Creative Commons licenses is that you may not place any restrictions on CC BY licensed material. One example of this would be taking CC BY content wholesale and putting it behind a paywall.
The situation regarding using CC BY licensed video (or other content) in your YouTube videos is the same as with public domain. You are free to do so, however, merely finding creative commons works and reposting them will fall afoul of YouTube’s re-use policies. That will almost certainly see your videos disqualified from monetization.
If your content is sufficiently transformative, or if you only include the CC BY content as a relatively small part of your video, you should be fine.
Are YouTube videos public domain? Unfortunately not. At least, most of the time they’re not. The critical thing to remember when considering the use of existing YouTube content—as well as any content on the Internet—is that you need explicit consent in some form from the creator. That is if you want to use that content without running into problems further down the line.
As a general rule, assume that any content for which a large corporation owns the copyright is a no go. It will almost certainly get taken down, and some companies are more litigious than others.
And, remember, if you want to monetize your content, you need to add something to it. You can’t just upload an existing public domain or Creative Commons video. Well, you can, but YouTube will flag it under their re-use policy and disqualify it from monetization. Add something of value for your viewers to the content, and you should be good to go.
And, if you see some recent content that you really want to use in a future video; you can always wait 95 years for the copyright to expire!