Whether you’re a creative professional in need of stock photography or a student who simply needs images for a slideshow, the search for high-quality, royalty-free photography can be lengthy and challenging. The good news is that finding royalty-free photos is not as hard as it might seem at first, you just need to know where to look. This three-part blog post series will offer some suggestions of where to find these photos and, going a step further, will break down some of the ways images are offered online for free.
So far, we’ve looked at “free” images that are given out with a license and Creative Commons. This week, in our final post of this series, we’ll look at the public domain.
But first, a quick disclaimer: This blog post gets into some specifics of copyright law. While we hope the guide below is useful, this post in no way constitutes formal legal advice. It is simply an informational jumping-off point.
The Public Domain
Images from our final category, the public domain, are truly free to use. There are no licenses, no credits, and no limits. The trick to using these images properly, however, is to understand what the public domain is and what it includes.
If you’ve never heard of the public domain, here’s your crash course: according to The Stanford University Library’s Copyright & Fair Use site, the public domain refers to “creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws… Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.” There are a number of ways these “creative materials” -- things like photographs, drawings, paintings, and other forms of creative work -- enter the public domain, but the main way is through the expiration of copyright. Once copyright has expired, the right to copy it no longer belongs to the original creator, and instead belongs to the public. It is free for all to use!
But, there’s a catch. Because of the way copyright law is written, most of those “creative works” are over 85 years old. Figuring out exactly which images are in the public domain can get tricky, but there is a golden rule to follow: as of 2020, any images published in the United States in 1924 or before are free for all to use.
Photographs and other images in the public domain can be found all over the internet, but in various qualities and sizes. And historic images carry with them the weight and reminder of who had the power to create photographs and other creative works in the past, as well as whose voices and creative work is missing from the historic record. Oftentimes, the public domain images that have been digitized and made available online are there because of their historic significance, making it hard to separate the history from the image itself. Just because the images are free doesn’t mean that they are easy to choose.
The good news, however, is that when you find an image that works, it is truly yours to use freely. No license, no rules, no restrictions.
- Art museums - Over the last few years, many art museums with well-known and vast collections have started offering “open access” to many of the works they own. You can often find high-resolution downloads of these artworks, including photographs. For example, try The Met or the Art Institute of Chicago.
- New York Public Library’s Digital Collections - Over 300,000 public domain images are available here. Nearly 77,000 of these are photographs.
- CC Search - This is a repeat from the section above. Creative Commons also lets artists use a Public Domain Mark or a CC0 license -- both of which mean you can search for truly free images here too.
- The Flickr Commons - Another repeat. There are many public domain images available here.
If you’re interested in learning more about copyright, don’t forget to check out SLPL’s many resources on the subject. Click here to browse the catalog.