Modifying Public Domain Images

I have a collection of images in the public domain that I want to work with. I’m going to touch some of them up in Photoshop and radically alter others. I might combine some images.

I understand that no one can own an image in the public domain. But if I “enhance” a public domain image, can I claim copyright or something similar over my modification?

For example, imagine a black-and-white image of a blue whale that’s in the public domain. If I take that same image and add some text describing the anatomy - Head, Flippers, Tail, etc. - then add a blue background, can I tell people they’re welcome to track down the original public domain image and do what they want with it, but they can’t copy my modification? (I think the legal term for this sort of thing is derivative, but I’m not sure.)


For copyright protection to attach to a later, allegedly derivative work, it must display some originality of its own. It cannot be a rote, uncreative variation on the earlier, underlying work. The latter work must contain sufficient new expression, over and above that embodied in the earlier work for the latter work to satisfy copyright law’s requirement of originality.

I’d guess that simply adding a few labels to a photograph won’t make it copyrightable. That whale photograph would remain largely unaltered–not enough to uniquely distinguish it from the original work.

1 Like