Five Great Sources of Public Domain Images

Pictures matter. Between Facebook’s link sharing system and Pinterest and Twitter Cards, images are playing an increasingly important role on the web.  Trend Reports tells us:

Over the last few years, the explosion of image-based social media sites like Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram have underscored the old saying, “image is everything,” and text-only media, as a result, is quickly becoming old news. …

Psychologically, consumers love imagery, and seeing visually appealing things creates positive emotions. Most people — between 65 and 85 percent — also describe themselves as ‘visual learners,’ forming meaning and organizing thoughts based on what they see more so than what they read.

via Image is Everything: Why People
Are Hooked on Image-Based Social Media

 This means that images are critical if you want people on the web to notice your work.  There are plenty of sites out there willing to sell you images to use on your website, but if you are just a casual or amateur blogger, the cost of those images can really get overwhelming.  Luckily, there are other ways to find images – without stealing copyrighted material from others.

The title of this post is a little misleading.  Not all of these sources are strictly Public Domain, but they are easy and legal to use.  These sites provide access to images that are either public domain or  freely-licensed in other ways.  As someone using them, you are responsible for verifying the licensing scheme used and giving proper attribution when required.  Two useful reads on image attribution are 6 Things about Image Attribution and Best practices for attribution. If you are ever unsure if an image is okay to use or you are not sure how to give credit to the image creator, just ask the owner or find a different image with use rights that you do understand.

The Sites

  1. Flickr's The Commons
    Flickr’s The Commons

    Flickr’s The Commons — The key goal of The Commons on Flickr is to share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives.  The Commons was launched on January 16 2008, when Flickr started a pilot project in partnership with The Library of Congress.  The project was a huge success and now over 90 libraries and archives participating.  The system replies heavily on user participation and requests your help in tagging the images in The Commons to make them easier for others to find.

    Rights Information: Participating institutions may have various reasons for determining that “no known copyright restrictions” exist, such as: The copyright is in the public domain because it has expired; The copyright was injected into the public domain for other reasons, such as failure to adhere to required formalities or conditions; The institution owns the copyright but is not interested in exercising control; or The institution has legal rights sufficient to authorize others to use the work without restrictions.

    Types of Images: This archive is mostly historical in nature. There are plenty of black and white photos from historical events and of past dignitaries.  There are also images of artwork including sculpture, paintings, posters, and maps.

  2. Wikimedia Commons
    Wikimedia Commons

    Wikimedia Commons — Wikimedia Commons only accepts free content — images and other media files that are not subject to copyright restrictions which would prevent them being used by anyone, anytime, for any purpose. The use may however be restricted by issues not related to copyright. There is also certain material, the copyrights of which have expired in one country while still applying in another. Some of the details are explained here.  The Wikimedia Commons database contains over 23 million freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute.  These include Images, Sounds, and Videos. Anyone can contribute to the Wikimedia Commons. If you travel and take some decent photos they would be very welcome there.

    In order to find certain media files on Wikimedia Commons you can search an entire category or see if a gallery page for your subject exists. Commons has fewer pages than Wikipedia has articles, but does have a number of gallery pages for broad topics like “Bicycle“, “Lake“, many National Parks, plant species, and animals, that can make searching or linking easier.

    Rights Information: If you want to reuse Wikimedia Commons media files outside Wikimedia projects you are welcome to do so. However keep these things in mind.

    Types of Images: The Wikimedia Commons contains an overwhelming variety of images from around the globe. This is my favorite source of modern and technology images.  Need a good photo of an iPhone or eBook Reader?  Wikimedia Commons is the place!

  3. Buck Ewing, New York Giants, baseball card portrait
    Buck Ewing, New York Giants, baseball card portrait

    The Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog — Your tax dollars at work!  The PPOC contains digital images representing a rich cross-section of still pictures held by the Prints & Photographs Division. The Library of Congress offers broad public access to these materials as a contribution to education and scholarship.

    Many of the items in this collection seem to have been digitized under fluorescent lighting so some of the images have a kind of yellowish dingy cast to them.  This can usually be corrected by using the Auto-Level tool in any photo editor.

    Rights Information: The nature of any historical archival collections means that copyright or other information about restrictions may be difficult or even impossible to determine. Whenever possible, the Library provides information about copyright owners and other restrictions in the catalog records or other texts that accompany collections. The Library provides such information to aid users, but that determination ultimately rests with the you, the patron.

    Types of Images: The collections of the Prints & Photographs Division include photographs, fine and popular prints and drawings, posters, and architectural and engineering drawings. While international in scope, the collections are particularly rich in materials produced in, or documenting the history of, the United States and the lives, interests and achievements of the American people.

  4. A Pixabay Submission
    A Pixabay Submission

    Pixabay — On Pixabay you can find images free of copyrights. This is a crowdsourced/user generated content oriented site. You can upload and share your own pictures as well as download the work of other people. Pixabay is available in 20 languages, so people all over the world would benefit from your contributions.

    Rights Information: All pictures are published under Creative Common’s CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) / Public Domain Dedication licensing. You can copy, modify, distribute and use the images, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission and without paying attribution. However, depicted content may still be protected by trademarks, publicity or privacy rights. Their blog explains more at Public Domain Images – What is allowed and what is not? Unlike most of the other sites here, everything you find is free for commercial use and no attribution is required.

    Types of Images: Most photos on Pixabay are submitted by the photographer who took the photo and chose to share it with the world. Submitted photos are placed in one or more of these categories: Animals, Architecture/Buildings, Backgrounds/Textures, Beauty/Fashion, Business/Finance, Computer/Communication, Education, Emotions, Food/Drink, Health/Medical, Industry/Craft, Music, Nature/Landscapes, People, Places/Monuments, Religion, Science, Sports, Transportation/Traffic, and Travel/Vacation.

  5. Man with Book - Uploaded by Gartus
    Man with Book – Uploaded by Gartus — The project started in early 2004 by Inkscape developers Jon Phillips and Bryce Harrington to collect designs of flags from all around the world. It progressed very well and the project goals were extended to building a free archive of generic clipart. A decade later, Openclipart displays the works of over 3,000 artists who have contributed over 50,000 SVG graphics.  All of the images are stored in Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) format but the website allows visitors to generate Portable Network Graphics (PNG) format copies in whatever size they need. If you would like to work with the native SVG files, you can do that with the wonderful Open Source Inkscape design tool.

    Rights Information: Each artist at Openclipart releases all rights to the images they share at Openclipart. The reason is so that there is no friction in using and sharing images authors make available at this website so that each artist might also receive the same benefit in using other artists clipart totally for any possible reason.

    Types of Images: Unlike the photo sites listed above, contains vector based images in many different categories and submitted by graphic artists from around the world. The site includes a search tool and also allows visitors to browse the catalog by artist or by date of submission. One cool feature of the site is the availability of an RSS feed for each artist so its easy to know when your favorite artists upload new items.

Opening image:Venice Carnival – Masked Lovers (2010)” by Frank Kovalchek is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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