Copyright serves a valuable service, protecting the rights of the artists, authors, and other creatives who depend on their work to make a living.
Public domain images fill another need, for people who need images to rework, reuse, repurpose — people like artists. For creating a new collage, mixed media work, or even just painting from a reference photograph, the sites below will be a great resource. But first …
What is the public domain?
From Kaishien Gaden, The Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual. Artist: Wang Gai. From the New York Public Library.
Reusing copyrighted images can be tricky. Sometimes it can be considered “fair use,” and sometimes it can be copyright infringement. In the U.S., it depends on things like what portion of the work is used and whether the new work is sufficiently transformative. (Sorry, we aren’t lawyers, but you might find this article on Graphic Artists Guild helpful.)
You can sidestep these issues entirely by using public domain and CC0 images in your artwork.
- public domain: This refers to creative works which are free of copyright restrictions, often because the copyright has expired. Work in the public domain can be used for any purpose, including commercial purposes, with no permission or credit necessary.
- CC0 (Creative Commons zero): A tool by which the copyright holder waives their rights to the work and releases it into the public domain. Just like with public domain works, CC0 works can be used for any purpose.
Unlike with copyrighted works, these images can be freely used as the focal point of an artwork without fear of committing copyright infringement.
Where to find public domain images
A 1917 photograph by Paul Strand. From the New York Public Library.
Now, the good part. These websites all specialize in copyright-free images, including things like illustrations, photographs, and maps.
- Update, February 2017: The Met has released over 375,000 images with a CC0 license as part of their Open Access program. See their full collection or just the public domain portion.
- Bildgeist specializes in public domain images in four categories: Alchemy, Nature, Culture, and Mythology. Expect to find vintage photographs, medieval illustrations, and NASA imagery.
- Dover Publications makes books that we first heard of through the work of collage artist David Alfuth. They publish books with copyright-free imagery you can cut out, photocopy, and use for whatever you like. (Note that not all their books are copyright-free.)
- The University of Texas maintains images of maps on its website, many of which are in the public domain.
- Pond5 has a huge library of images and video, but only some of it is in the public domain. When you search, select the appropriate checkbox to see only copyright-free images.
- Looking for outer space imagery? It’s hard to beat NASA, images (and videos) from which are typically in the public domain.
- Likewise, you can search Flickr for only Creative Commons images. Check the details for each image to see what restrictions it has.
- The Internet Archive has all kinds of images you can download, but not all of them are necessarily free of copyright restrictions. The Brooklyn Museum and the Met have both uploaded collections here.
- The Library of Congress, naturally, has a huge amount of photos, maps, artwork, and other images, and many of them are available online. However, there’s no way to search for only public domain images, so you’ll have to check the copyright information for each image. Limiting your search dates to before 1923 will turn up mostly public domain images.
- The New York Public Library digital collections contain both copyrighted and public domain images, with a checkbox that allows you to search only the public domain.
- Pixabay has thousands of CC0 images and videos. We’ve found it quite useful for this blog and other projects.
- Finally, many museums host downloadable images on their website, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hermitage, and the Rijksmuseum. There are many, many more.
Are there any other resources we should include here? Let us know! And don’t forget, if you find these images useful in your work, the people who create and maintain these resources always appreciate a donation.