Whether you’re an aspiring blogger or building a website for a business, it’s tough to escape copyright infringement in a digital age. As enticing as it might seem, you can’t simply 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 the “public domain.”
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Public domain images are available to anyone and can generally 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 photographed 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. That said, here are our favorite places for downloading public domain images.
Disclaimer: Copyright properties and conditions vary from one image to the next. Make sure you have an 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.
Our favorite public domain image sites
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. You can even search for images that are part of the Met Musem’s public domain collection.
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 have 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.
Many images on Flickr are free to use as long as you credit the photographer. After typing a term into the search bar, use the drop-down menu on the upper left that says “any license” and select the use you are looking for to sort the images. Like the rest of the sites in our roundup, it’s best 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, if you happen to be looking for a great collection of historical images.
If you’re looking for a place to download a collection of resources for designing a personal or commercial website, IM Free offers everything you need, whether you intend to build a personal blog using one of the best blogging sites or create a commercial enterprise using Wix, Weebly, or one of the many quality website builders out there. 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, 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 attribution.
Unsplash has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Although it initially lacked a search button and distinct image categories, it has since expanded upon its Tumblr-like design, allowing you to quickly browse new images and scour the site based on image tags, collections, and users. Despite these recent changes, however, the Unsplash library still features a wide array of high-resolution photos submitted by different users. Photos vary from animal close-ups and landscapes to automobiles and intimate portraits, and a host of curated and featured collections give you a means of browsing an assortment of broader topics — weddings, silhouettes, computers, etc. It remains one of the best for casual browsing, too, as the images are a bit “artsier” than those on other stock sites. Now, if only the site’s image library was a bit more extensive.
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. Most of the free images also require attribution — and be prepared for the ads to actually buy an image from the stock photography company.
Death to Stock Photos
Death to Stock Photos is not what you might expect — it’s not a place to search for free photos now, but a platform to get free photos occasionally delivered by email. 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. The platform is now a place for “non-stock” photos — and some of them are free. Once you sign up for a free subscription, you’ll receive a pack of photos with their accompanying stories. While this used to be a monthly delivery, the free photos are now delivered “occasionally,” according to the website. For an additional $12-15 a month, you’ll be granted access to the site’s entire library and receive an extra pack of monthly photos. 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. That said, NASA is the place to go to for all of your cosmic and otherworldly needs. The independent agency offers mind-blowing photos it has captured over the years, entirely for free. The site also has a number of galleries you can browse if you’re in need of something specific. Whether it’s retro shots of Neil Armstrong on the moon, photos that highlight the surface of Mars, or something more recent, NASA probably has you covered. And if you’re in need of rocket images or those relating to other spacecraft, check out SpaceX’s Flickr page.
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 and redistribute them to your heart’s content. 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 adds hundred of new photos every day, so the size of the image library is continuously growing. If you use Pexels often, consider contributing CC0 images to its portfolio, so you can return the favor.