All articles from academic journals, whether obtained for free online or through library subscriptions, have licenses.
Licenses tell users how they're allowed to use the articles. Licenses are written and enforced by publishers, and licenses may vary from publisher to publisher, journal to journal, and even article to article.
If you access a full-text article through library subscriptions, professional memberships, or a pay-wall, the license is likely more restrictive than an article anyone can access freely online. However, articles that are free online also have licenses.
Open Access refers to content made freely available online without restrictions to access (without payment or institutional subscription). That doesn't mean anyone can re-use open access content however they choose. Licenses and copyright law still apply.
The public domain is the space where no intellectual property rights exist. Works in the public domain may be used without any restrictions whatsoever.
What's in the public domain?
For example: works not written or recorded, ideas, facts, and lots of other things, like recipes, fashion designs, domain names, genetic code, titles, names, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols, procedures, methods, and systems
Works produced by the United States government are in the public domain. (Think CDC and NIH.)
Creative Commons provides free, easy-to-use licenses to make a simple and standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work–on conditions of your choice.
Many (but not all!) free online articles have Creative Commons licenses.
US Copyright Law is intended to protect producers of intellectual and creative content--to keep others from improperly using that content. Copyright law always applies, but is secondary to licenses.
See our copyright guide to learn more.
Why does is matter?
Copyright Law of the United States includes title 17 of the United States Code and all amendments enacted by Congress. When laws are broken, there are consequences. Those who are found guilty of breaking copyright laws can be ordered by a court to pay damages. Abiding by the law keeps individuals, MAHEC, and all affiliated institutions safe from legal action.
Fair Use is a component of US Copyright Law. Copyright (and Fair Use) is a fall-back for when there are no governing licenses in place.
See our copyright guide for more about Fair Use.
Why do you need to cite anyway?