It’s tough to escape copyright infringement in a digital age. As enticing as it might seem, you can’t legally use any image you’ve found online and throw it in your blog or use it for commercial purposes. The bulk of the images on the web are subject to copyright — meaning the photographer or creator of a particular image retains exclusive rights to that image — and are therefore protected under federal law. Luckily, there is an entire realm of free-for-all images that fall under something called “public domain.”
Public domain images are available to anyone and can be used for whatever purpose you like, even commercial use, for a variety of reasons: the copyright may have expired, the images could have been taken by a government branch, or the owner may have just forfeited his or her rights for whatever reason. And, although there is a ton of places to find public domain images online, many of the sites offer limited and lackluster results that are more of an eyesore than eye candy. Here are choices for the best places to go to download public domain images. Have at it.
DISCLAIMER: Copyright properties and conditions vary from one image to the next. Make sure you have a firm understanding of the license and abide by any restrictions it may have in order to avoid legal penalties and action. Publish at your own risk.
Creative Commons is one of the best choices for public-domain content, whether you’re looking for photos, audio, or something else. The site’s handy search utility allows you to enter a search term in the upper-right corner and filter the results based on Flickr, Fotopedia, Pixabay, Google Images, and a number of other reputable spots for hosting photos.
Keep in the mind that the site searches for images that have Creative Commons licenses, meaning the images might not necessarily fall under public domain, but they can often still be used under certain conditions. The site should also automatically search for content that can be used commercially and otherwise, but it’s a good idea to double-check the license just to be on the safe side.
EveryStockPhoto has an attractive, yet easy-to-navigate interface and displays some of the most popular searches on the left-hand side for easy access. When you use the built-in search bar, the site compiles images from a wealth of resources and showcases them in a classic thumbnail view or a column view that sorts them; once you click an image, EveryStockPhoto will show you the photographer, the license type, resolution, and a few other tidbits of information. Unfortunately, you must register for a free account depending on the image source.
With more than 16 million media files available for free, Wikimedia is another great tool for finding different kinds of public-domain content. Users curate the elaborate site – uploading, tagging, and categorizing the files – and most of the content is available and can be modified as long as you attribute the original author or licenser.
Wikimedia features a fairly extensive list of categories, from nature to engineering, and there is even a public domain category to greater filter your results. When using the search bar in the upper-right corner, try entering “PD” before your search term to limit the results exclusively to public domain images. For instance, try searching “PD Abraham Lincoln” to show only public domain images of the late president.
Flickr doesn’t just house millions and millions of protected images. It is also a great source for finding Creative Commons-licensed material and some that has made its way into the public domain spectrum, as well. The site features a wide array of images and the comprehensive search function allows you to sift through images much quicker than the built-in image browser.
Like the rest of the sites in our roundup, it’s best to to avoid any legal trouble by looking at what the original content owner’s restrictions on the image are. Some images on Flickr aren’t subject to copyright at all and thereby can be used for anything (including commercial purposes), while others merely require a simple attribution or hyperlink back to the source. Be sure to check out the Library of Congress’ photostream for a great collection of historical images.
If you’re looking for a place to download a collection of resources for both personal and commercial projects, IM Free offers everything you need, whether you’re building a personal blog or a business page. IM Free bills itself as “a curated collection of free web design resources, all for commercial use,” meaning that the assets can be used in for-profit websites. However, it’s important to note the commercial use clause, as many images and textures are free to download but lack a free license. Unlike our previous pick, Textures.com (formerly CG Textures), IM Free has a stronger concentration on stock images and offers a variety of tools for designers, including templates, icons, and buttons. On the stock photography side, IM Free handles all model and location releases, so you don’t have to — just make sure to verify if the image you’re using requires an attribution.
Unsplash is not your typical stock photography website. It doesn’t feature a search button or different categories to choose from, but rather, functions solely as a Tumblr page featuring beautiful high-resolution photos submitted by different users. Ten new photos are added every 10 days, all of which you can download. Photos vary from animal close-ups and landscapes to automobiles and intimate portraits, but sadly, there isn’t a way to search for specific images. Get used to casual browsing and stockpiling photos for future use.
Dreamstime has a similar look and feel to Shutterstock, but includes a selection of free photos as well. The site does ask for a user sign-in, and there are some photos that require credits to download, but it does have a substantial selection of free images. In fact, compared to the other sites in our roundup, Dreamstime has the best variety, given it pulls from Creative Commons and many other websites. The search is accurate, too, so long as you keep your search queries broad. It also offers a slew of generic categories to browse through, if you’re looking for something less specific.
Death to Stock Photos is not what you might expect. Co-founders David Sherry and Allie Lehman noticed it can be difficult to find compelling photos for free use on blogs and personal websites, so they decided to offer their own. Once you sign up for a free subscription, you will receive a pack of photos with their accompanying stories each month. For an additional $10 a month, you’ll gain access to the couple’s entire library and receive an extra pack of photos to your inbox every month. Part of that money goes to different artists, allowing for greater variety in the library.
Unlike waterfalls or puppies, photos of space can be more difficult to capture for the home photographer. NASA is the place for all of your cosmic and space picture needs. They offer mind-blowing photos they’ve taken over the years, for free. The site has a number of galleries you can go through to find something you need. Whether it’s retro ones like Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon, the Mars surface shot by Curiosity, or something more recent like a cosmic ring.
Pexels offers photos that carry a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, which pretty much means there are no strings attached. You don’t have to attribute the photos to the photographers, and you are free to edit them and redistribute. The photos are sourced from either Pexels users or other websites that offer free-to-use images, including Unsplash (see above) and Little Visuals. The company says it has 10,000 free stock images available, and it adds at least 1,500 new ones every month. Karma is good: If you use Pexels often, consider contributing CC0 images to its portfolio, so you can return the favor to other creatives.
There is a lot of outer space to cover, so if you don’t find what you’re looking for with NASA, SpaceX has made all of its spectacular photos available in the public domain. The world was informed of this exciting news by Elon Musk on Twitter – what a world we’re living in! SpaceX is a young, private company, so unlike the government-run NASA, it has no obligation to give up the rights to their photos. Lucky for us, they decided to throw us a bone and put awe-inspiring pictures on Flickr for free.