Today on the blog, we’re exploring how you can use public domain artwork within your own pattern designs. For many of us, the thorny territory surrounding copyright can be a little confusing and downright intimidating. However, once you understand the basics, you’ll appreciate that the public domain is brimming with potential inspiration and design resources. Read on to learn more.

Plus, we’re pinning our favorite public domain finds here – follow along for inspiration!

What is the public domain?

The public domain comprises any creative work that is not protected under intellectual property law. As such, these works are free to be copied, modified, and distributed by the public.

There are a few common reasons for a work to enter into the public domain:

1. The copyright has expired.

It is important to note that there is no global copyright law; the length of copyright protection differs on a country-by-country basis. Even within the US, it depends on the time period in which the work was published. For instance, all works published in 1978 onwards are protected for the owner’s lifetime, plus 70 years. Meanwhile, most works published before 1923 are now in the public domain, with a few rare exceptions. For more information on all the evolving specifications of US copyright head here.

2. The copyright owner dedicated the work to the public domain.

Since 1989, owners are not required to publish a copyright notice attached to their original works. Rather, the work is automatically granted copyright protection upon creation. For this reason, in order for an owner to clearly indicate that they want to waive their copyright, they can use the Creative Common Zero (CC0) designation.  

For some owners, the all-or-nothing nature of the public domain vs. copyright protection is far too exclusive. As a result, many choose to manage the conditions in which their works can be used by the public with varying Creative Commons licenses. These licenses indicate the requirements for: attribution, commercial vs. non-commercial use, as well as modification restrictions. To learn more about these licensing types click here.       

3. The work was produced by a US federal employee in their official government capacity.

There are a few qualifying regulations to keep in mind here; for example, the public domain rule applies only to federal works not those created by state or local government employees. Another condition dictates that you cannot use a US government work to imply endorsement. To check the full list of conditions click here.

Where can you find public domain artwork?

There are a number of digital platforms available to help you search for public domain works. Some of these sites are explicit public domain databases, whereas others offer a ‘public domain only’ option within their search function. However, if you are at all concerned as to the accuracy of the copyright status, we always advise that you follow up on the citation with your own research.

Some of our favorite online public domain sources:

Creative Commons 

This site directs you to a range of creative commons search engines from Flickr to Google Images to Wikimedia Commons. While this website efficiently identifies works available to the public, it is important to follow the image all the way to its original source to find out the licenses’ specific terms of use.     

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As of February 2017, the museum officially instituted an Open Access policy, dedicating nearly half of the museum’s online collection to the public domain. You can limit a search based on the object type/material, so you can select anything from illuminated manuscripts to playing cards!

The New York Public Library

The Digital Collection features over 180,000 public domain works. Alongside a wealth of helpful public domain resources, the website also includes a fascinating tool to visualize the entire archive.

The British Library

In 2013, the British Library released a million images onto the Flickr commons. All the images link directly back to their original sources, though the Library is still enlisting help from the public in classifying and ordering the archive.

The Public Domain Review

If you aren’t quite sure what you are looking for, check out this website’s quirky curated collections. The images are well documented and you can even search by particular creative commons license.

Incorporating Public Domain Artwork into Patterns

Now you know what the public domain is and how to access it, let’s explore how easy it is to incorporate this artwork into your own patterns.

We sent our in-house textile designer, Janie, on a mission to create a personal print from the public domain. Janie embarked upon her search within the New York Public Library database, ensuring that she had the “show only public domain” option selected.

Janie eventually navigated her way to the work of American painter, Louis Kinney Harlow. Harlow’s collection of delicate watercolor prints of various ships and naval vessels along the coastline caught her attention. Rather than focusing upon a single painting, Janie decided to take design motifs from five different Harlow prints: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  

Check out the results below!

Janie’s Windward design maintains the peaceful whimsy of Harlow’s original work while transforming his landscape settings into an artful pattern repeat.

Here are a few of Janie’s tips and tricks for creating your own composition:

  • Look out for artworks with clean, simple backgrounds as they enable you to extract individual motifs more easily.

  • Create visual balance by rotating or flipping motif elements.  

  • Take advantage of the half-drop and half-brick repeat options in the Customizer.

  • Color reduce your design for optimal customizability.

Before we set you loose on the public domain, there are a few concluding points that we should address. While many works in the public domain do not require attribution, we highly recommend that you transparently identify your source of inspiration. As the New York Public Library notes in their “Rights Statement,” providing a citation “…helps us track how our collection is used and helps justify freely releasing even more content in the future.” Furthermore, it inspires others to follow suit, reinvigorating past artwork and bringing forth new innovation!

Finally, while works in the public domain cannot be privately owned, your own creative reinterpretations can be. This means that Janie is now the owner of Windward, and will rightly receive the appropriate commission from her sales on the WeaveUp platform.

We’re sharing some of our favorite public domain finds over on Pinterest – follow along for endless inspration!

For more information on the public domain check out these two great books by Nolo Press: The Public Domain; How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More and Getting Permission: How to License & Clear Copyrighted Materials Online and Off.

If you have any questions or concerns about this blog post, please feel free to share in the comments below or reach out to us at