Wednesday 25 May 2011

Free Public Domain Photos

Cat - by kevindooley

To all the people who are tempted to violate someone's copyright here are some ideas about free public domain photos. First let's remind ourselves that everything on the internet is protected by copyright unless there something on or around the work that says otherwise. Nothing can be copied unless it is expressly allowed. That is the default position. Update: this was written around 14 years ago! :-?

All images in public domain?!

Things have changed. Pinterest pretty well single-handedly destroyed the concept of intellectual property rights for images on the internet. Everything they publish is almost certainly a breach of copyright. No one complaints. If they can do it why can't I? The true is that all I have said below is true but in practice at 2021 no one cares anymore. You can be sure that almost any image is in the public domain nowadays :)  !

Creative Commons (CC)

Perhaps one of the best ideas to come out of the internet (did the internet give birth to this idea? - not sure) is creative commons. It appears that a lot of people don't know how it works.

Creative commons is a licensing system. In using creative commons the author of a work - be it a photo, words, music etc - can give permission to anyone to use the photo under the terms of the license.

These photos are not strictly speaking free and in the public domain but their allowed use is as good as public domain photos.

Types of CC License

There are four different types of license; each one allows use of the work under the particular conditions of the license.  A "license" is a form of permission to use the photo.

Some are more restrictive than others. And importantly the licenses are used together (I explain this below). Each type of license has its own symbol.

This license allows people to use the photo in anyway they wish. You can use it "as is" or adjust it, crop it etc. All you have to do is give the photographer credit (the symbol of the person indicates that - called "Attribution License"). This form of license is always included. When giving credits I always copy the photographer's name and drop it under the photo on my site (see header photo on this page). I also give a link back to the photographer's page as a thank you. In fact Flickr asks that we do that as it helps Flickr. Let's do it. We got the photo for free didn't we?

This license allows use provided you use it exactly as it is published on Flickr (the symbol of the equals sign indicates that - called "NoDerivs License"). You can't change it and you have to provide a credit on your website where the photo is re-published. Please stick to these conditions. Often there are lots of nice free public domain photos under this heading as good photographers like their photos to be unaltered for obvious reasons. The photos can be used by use for commercial purposes too provided the symbol below is not attached.

This license means that you can use the photo but not for commercial purposes. The symbol of the dollar sign struck through indicates that ("NonCommercial License").

This license means that you can use the photo and derivatives of it (modifications of it) and distribute those modified images ("ShareAlike License").

As I said above, these different types of license are balled together. For example, I often use the the top two licenses balled together, attribution and no derivatives. The photographer allows use of these photos provided you don't alter them and give a credit (and a link back but this is not obligatory under the license - it is just a Flick requirement). This page on the creative commons site shows the different forms of license.

I use Flickr for free public domain photos. I think it is the best of the photo library sites and they have a clear creative commons section.

There are about 180 million photos on Flickr that are usable under creative commons. We should thank the people who grant permission to others to use their photos.

I'll explain how to get to them so that you don't feel like "stealing" the photos of Helmi Flick on my websites.

Go to Flickr - click on this link. Then scroll down the page to the footer menu. You will see creative commons. Click on it. You then come to a page of icons of the six different versions of creative commons together with thumbnail samples of the photos under each license. These licenses are what might be called combo licenses. Two or more types of creative commons license are balled together as mentioned above. The attribution license is always present.

I would suggest that initially you use the second one down (Attribution-NoDerivs License). If you use a non-commercial license there is the added complication of deciding what "non-commercial" means. There are various interpretations. I would suggest that a Google Blogger blog with a low visitor count and perhaps a bit of AdSense on it could be classified as non-commercial. That is just my thought.

Select which license that you prefer but stick to the conditions as laid down by the license please.

If you don't see a picture that appeals you can then search the whole of Flickr and select copyrighted photos. These are expressly protected by copyright but it does not mean that they can't be used. All you have to do is ask the photographer using the Flickr email service. The photographer will probably be happy to let you use it provided you give a credit and publish the photo as is (unmodified). But you have to ask first. This is a must - sorry.

Flickr's repository of hundreds of millions of photos should satisfy your needs one way or another. Play by the rules please. It makes life so much less complicated in the long run.

If you don't like Flickr there is Photobucket and Webshots which are large sites with more millions of photos and similar methods for use of the photos.

Finally if you want to search globally for creative commons, free public domain photos, use the creative commons site: CC Search.

Other Free Public Domain Photos

The most obvious way a photo becomes free from copyright and in the public domain is through lapse of copyright over time. Copyright law is complicated unfortunately. I wrote an article about it some time ago: Definition of Copyright - this page also covers some of the ground covered on this page.

Google provide a book service - Google Books -  and some of the books are copyright free due to lapse of time. Sometimes these old books have useful photos. You can link to them and embed extracts using Google software. Or you can take a screenshot legitimately. Try Public domain only books.

Pixabay is good. Try it. I use it quite a lot. Search for it using Google or Bing.

Fair Use

Use of copyrighted material is sometimes permissible under fair use but great caution is required. I would not use this concept unless you know what you are doing an if you do please argue your reasons why you think you can use the photo under fair use.

The Wikipedia authors use fair use sometimes and their arguments are instructive. Here is Wiki's page on the subject.

Wikimedia Commons

This is another excellent resource for free public domain photos. Search it thoroughly and please comply with the terms and conditions. Wikimedia Commons home page.

Free Cat Clipart

I have a page on PoC on this.

Stock photo Sites

Sometimes these sites provide the odd photo for free. Here are two examples of stock photo sites:
  1. Dreamstime
  2. iStockphoto
Please don't violate the copyright of Helmi Flick on the pages of my website: PoC - thanks.

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From Free Public Domain Photos to Home Page


  1. How do you know if it is free public domain if there is no place on the page that tells me if it is protected? I found a really neat pic of a cat, none of the copy-write icons or connections were shown. I checked the entire page, and at the bottom for copywrite information.

    Great article though, things I did not know. I learned something about copywrites.
    Thanks, Pam

  2. Hi KittieKatMom, if there is nothing on the page regarding copyright you must make the presumption that it is protected by copyright as it is not obligatory to place copyright notices under photos and text.

    The default position is that the item is protected.

  3. Well informative blog , Nice information shared.


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