Public domain images can be a blessing for image users as, expressed in their name, these works truly belong to the public without the legal restrictions that generally apply to copyrighted images. However, caution must be applied: read our guide to learn about the types of public domain images and how you can use them exactly (there’s more than what meets the eye) so you can act safely from the perspective of the law as well.
What are public domain images?
A public domain image is a visual work that is not subject to copyright that can happen for three main reasons:
- The copyright has never existed.
- The copyright has expired.
- The copyright owner abandoned all rights related to it.
If an image is in the public domain, anyone can use the given work without permission or paying a fee and in any way they want, including making any modifications, creating derivative works, or using it for commercial purposes and making profit.
Public domain images #1: The copyright has never existed
The scope of what is and what is not protected by copyright can differ country by country. In the US, for example, the following works and subjects don’t qualify for copyright protection:
- Ideas, methods, and systems
- Names, titles, and short phrases
- Typeface, fonts, and lettering
- Blank forms
- Familiar symbols and designs
As an example for ideas, methods and systems being not copyrightable: if someone explains a new method in their book for taking black and white photographs, they will hold copyright for the content described there (including the text and illustrations) that others cannot copy but nothing can legally prevent them to follow the same method.
Public domain images #2: The copyright has expired
As for expiring copyright, state-level regulations can vary again. A most recent example is from the US where works first published or released before January 1, 1926, have lost their copyright protection, effective January 1, 2021.
A famous precedent is the copyright case of Mickey Mouse that first appeared in Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willy cartoon in 1928. After intense rounds of lobby and copyright reforms for several decades, Disney was able to keep the copyright protection of the well-known mouse character but now it is about to face the public domain in 2024 — unless the copyright laws change again. Interestingly, this issue only covers Mickey’s original character but not its later incarnations, therefore the story will likely continue in other respects. Plus, Disney is still set to own all Mickey-related trademarks after 2024 as well.
Public domain images #3: Abandoned copyright
The copyright owner can abandon all rights to their work in two cases:
- By releasing the work into the public domain with a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license.
- By transferring copyright ownership to someone else which can be exclusive rights or part of those rights (but in this case it understandably won’t belong to the public domain).
It’s worth knowing that copyright abandonment cannot happen by accident, it must be intentionally expressed by the original copyright owner. Furthermore, copyright relinquishment also means that the former owner cannot bring a claim of copyright infringement against anyone using that specific work.
How to cite public domain images?
Citing public domain images is not a legal requirement however it’s common practice to give attribution by displaying some details of the images, including:
- Date (of creation and/ or when it was accessed)
- License (if applicable)
It’s always recommended to check if the source of the given public domain images has set any rules or requests to follow regarding attribution. For instance, the Getty Search Gateway’s digitalised art pieces belong to the public domain but are asked to be credited.
How to find public domain images?
Finding public domain images online require attention and caution. Even though their very nature is about free access and unrestricted use, the vast quantity of images online will make it particularly difficult to find the ones that can truly be used without restrictions under the public domain.
Therefore, as a number one rule: always be vigilant if you want to use public domain images. Make sure to read the terms and conditions and data policies of all sites stating the availability of public domain images (and definitely never stop on the image search results page — see our tips for this below). Before you take any action, check if no changes have occurred to the required means of use or crediting of images even on the sites where you sourced public domain images previously.
Below we listed some sites where public domain images are available however on some of them you may also find images that are not in the public domain (typically museum sites, e.g., The Met Collection, the Rijksmuseum or the Yale University Art Gallery), therefore always follow their own guidance to only download and use the ones marked accordingly.
In other cases, some restrictions can also apply such as the prohibition of selling images without modification (Unsplash) or using images with identifiable brands to create a misleading association with a product or service (Pixabay).
20 platforms where you can find public domain images:
- Wikimedia Commons
- Wikipedia’s Public Domain Image Resources
- The Commons by Flickr
- The Public Domain Review
- The British Library’s collection on Flickr
- Official SpaceX Photos on Flickr
- The Getty Search Gateway
- The Met Collection
- Smithsonian Open Access
- The New York Public Library Digital Collections
- Free to Use and Reuse Sets of the Library of Congress
- Open Access at the US National Gallery of Art
- The Netherlands’s Rijksmuseum
- Yale University Art Gallery
- Europeana - Europe’s digital library
- Old Book Illustrations
- New Old Stock
Finding public domain images with Google and Bing
People often turn to search engines when they would like to find images to use — public domain images are no different. On the other hand, we’d like to advise you to practice caution here even more so than usual.
Search engines are not bulletproof when it comes to showing you images properly labelled as copyrighted or being in the public domain. We suggest you do your due diligence and click through the filtered results (see our tips below) and do some of your own research on the site where the certain image is displayed and see if it can be used and under what conditions.
Public domain images on Google
Google is not necessarily your best friend when it comes to finding public domain images. If you start a Google Images search, you can click on “Tools”, then “Usage Rights” and your best option is to click on “Creative Commons licenses”. Naturally, this will cover all CC licenses out there and won’t make it easy for you to filter the CCO licence mentioned above. Therefore, as mentioned above, don’t forget to examine any and every result you may like.
Public domain images on Bing
Bing is a significantly better search engine when it comes to finding public domain images as under its “Filter”, then “License” option, you can click on “Public domain”. Nevertheless, the rule stays the same: always click through to the page where the image is hosted and do everything in your power to figure if the given work surely belongs to the public domain. If you’re not sure, don’t use it.
Legal use of public domain images with Pixsy
To be a proper image user, one has to acquire some skills to make sure that they act according to the law. Copyright protection is a serious matter, controlled similarly and very strictly in most parts of the world and while public domain images offer a certain freedom for image users, everyone should act carefully upon using them.
One action to think of is to always check the image source and verify the copyright owner in the case of public domain images as well. This can be a lot of manual labour if you have a large volume of images so you can consider Pixsy’s AI-driven monitoring system for higher efficiency (also free up to 500 images). You can sign up here.
The Pixsy Academy also offers a wide range of readings on the topic of copyright and photography. Dive in and learn about your rights whether you are an image user or owner.