You can’t grab any image off of the Internet and use it, especially if it’s not one of many public domain images available for free use.
What are public domain images?
An image finds itself in the public domain for two reasons:
- Copyright protection has run out: Under most governments, copyright protection expires after a certain period of time. For works published in or protected by the U.S., for example, copyright protection generally expires 70 years after the author of the work has died (but these terms do vary depending on the date the work was published)2.
- The author gives up his/her copyrights: In this case, the maker of the work intentionally and explicitly places the image in the public domain by forgoing any of his or her copyrights. Typically, these images will have a license like CC0 1.0 Public Domain Dedication.
Before we use a random image we obtained off the Internet, we must answer these questions first:
- Can it be used commercially? Or is it limited to just personal use?
- Can it be edited/modified/changed?
- Can I sell/redistribute the image?
- Can I use it on my website/app/illustration/book?
- Do I need to get permission to use this image? How and where do I get permission?
- Do I need to provide attribution?
We have to worry about these things (and more) in every case where we want to use an image that we didn’t create or don’t own, except for when the image is in the public domain.
Key features of public domain images
- Ability to use the image any way you want (almost): Public domain images won’t have any usage restrictions. You can sell them, edit them, redistribute them, use them in your web app, etc. The only restrictions you’ll have are laws and regulations that your government has.
For example, let’s say that for some strange reason your country doesn’t allow you to use photos of butterflies or images of trees; you’ll bear the repercussions of that violation, not the creator or provider of the work.
- No attribution required: Some free images you find on the Web will demand that you link back to the sites where you got them from. A proper public domain image won’t require you to acknowledge the creator or source of the work.
- Truly free: For the sites mentioned in this article, you will be able to download public domain images from them at no cost. Note that some stock photo sites sell public domain images — they either charge a monthly fee or charge you a certain amount per download — but I won’t be talking about those here.
How to find public domain images: 15 valuable websites
PublicDomainArchive is a great source of professional-level public domain images. New photos are added regularly, which keeps the site’s content fresh. The website is managed by Matt Hobbs, a professional web designer and photographer.
Pixabay is easy to use: The site has a good search feature and multiple options for exploring its content. All the images on Pixabay carry the CC0 1.0 public dedication license.
The Public Domain Review is an online publication dedicated to the subject of the public domain. They have over a hundred collections of public domain images, with each collection having numerous images and containing a description about the body of work.
On Unsplash, you have more than two million free images to choose from. Unsplash is a project originally created by Crew, an online marketplace for creative talent.
New Old Stock is a blog that indexes vintage stock photos that have no known copyright restrictions.
PDPics has a collection of over a thousand public domain images organized into 18 categories, such as “Animals”, “Food”, “Technology” and so forth.
Picdrome is a collection of photos in the public domain. The images are licensed under CC0 1.0 and arranged in categories such as “Nature” and “Textures and Backgrounds”.
The Smithsonian is a huge institution with access to many pieces of history. With its Open Access project, it gives the public permission to use over 3 million digital items from its library of content, including from its museums, archives, and the National Zoo.
Pexels is a stock website that offers free images and videos for use in your projects. The team at Pexels asks that you don’t redistribute or sell the photos or portray people in the content in an offensive way.
Flickr has a project called “The Commons” in partnership with organizations such as the U.S. Library of Congress and the National Library of Australia. The project’s goal is to catalog public domain images and “to share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives.”
Wikimedia Commons is a media file repository and it has a massive index of public domain work. It’s a project by Wikimedia Foundation, the same non-profit organization that manages Wikipedia. The collection is extensive, and is regularly updated because of its open-platform nature.
However, it’s quite tough to browse through images compared to other sites in this list.
12. Little Visuals
Little Visuals offers free images for commercial use and boasts over 3 million users.
This database offers a large number of historical images and documents both requiring a license and in the public domain. The search feature gives you the option to only pull up public domain images for easy browsing.
Gratisography, a project by designer Ryan McGuire, offers free and unique images for public use. Of course, there are some restrictions on how you can use the images, including a rule against selling them as your own.
This public domain image website offers over 350,000 images to its users. Just be sure you have the proper releases if a photo features a person or product.
Tips for using free public domain images
- Be careful of images with people in them. When a photo has an identifiable person in it, that person may have rights to privacy that’s provided by his/her country. As I’ve alluded to earlier, you’re responsible for making sure that you use a public domain photo in lawful and ethical ways.
- Consider providing attribution even though you’re not required to. Though attribution is not needed for public domain images, most of the site owners and creators work hard to provide us with these wonderful resources. They will still appreciate it if you link back to their site to acknowledge their work.
I recommend doing this whenever possible.
- The Public Domain Manifesto (publicdomainmanifesto.org)
- Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States (copyright.cornell.edu)