Searching for Creative Commons and Public Domain Images

What are Creative Commons and Public Domain Images?

Back in the beginning of this blog, I covered “Searching Using Google Images.”  While Google Images is great for finding images, most images within Google are copyrighted.  If we wish to reproduce an image in a paper, book, or other work, copyrighted images will not always work.  Why?  Unless you contact the rights-holder for permission, using that image is a violation of copyright.  On works like PowerPoints there is a gray area on rights since the material is for presentation and not for sale or publication.  Thus, it can be considered fair use under certain circumstances (ex. educational).  However, to be safe in all cases, it is better to seek images that are licensed under a creative commons license or to use images in the public domain.

Now you might be wondering what creative commons license and public domain are.  Material of any kind, including images, can be placed under a creative commons license.  There are various levels that allow anything from only sharing and downloading a work to the ability to take a work and completely remix it.  In all cases, the original creator must be credited.  I hope to have a stand alone post of these later, but this link lists the license types.  Public domain images are images that are either out of copyright (generally pre-1923) or produced and/or held by the government.  It’s a lesser known fact that all government works are considered to be owned by the people and we are allowed to use them (exception:  anything classified).  However, as with creative commons images, the image must be cited.   With public domain images, but sure to include what institution holds the image, what collection the image is in, and the images title (and creator, if known).

Locating Creative Commons Images

Creative Commons Search is the best way to locate images with a creative commons license.  It is a website provided by the nonprofit Creative Commons organization, which also oversees the licensing.  While the images included in the search should hold a creative commons attribute, there is a disclaimer to check each photo’s restrictions individually to ensure the proper attribute is given.  This means there is still a chance a copyrighted image could accidentally make its way into the search results.

Here are the steps:

  1. Go to Creative Commons Search. (screenshot below)
  2. Select which collection to search.  You can only search one at a time.  The offered image collections are:  Europeana, Flickr, Fotopedia,  Google Images, Open Clip Art Library, Wikimedia Commons, and Pixabay.
    • Note:  You can also use other collections to search for text, music, mixed media.  In fact, Europeana and Wikimedia Commons offer more than just images.
  3. Under the search box, there are two boxes checked by default:  “use for commercial purposes” and “modify, adapt, or build.”  Leaving both checked is best for publication inclusion because it limits the search the most.  However, you can opt to leave both checked, have only one checked, or remove the checks.  Having “modify, adapt, or build” checked is best if you plan on Photoshopping  the image (or an equivalent).  All options should be fine for a PowerPoint presentation or report for class.
  4. Type your keyword(s) in the search box.
  5. After this, each collection is different to search.  In each, you can click-through pages of images.
    • In Google Images, you can further limit the search using the same instructions in my earlier post.  Since the earlier post was written, Google removed the sidebar and placed and advanced search options on a hidden header menu.  Click “Search Tools” under the search box to activate the menu.**
    • In Europeana, it features a limiter sidebar with options similar to that in Google Images.
    • Flickr features the ability to conduct an advanced search via a link to the right of their search box.  However, it doesn’t add many limiters and may not be useful.
  6. Once you find an image you like, open it and double-check the license and its restrictions.
  7. If the image is safe to use, be sure to credit the creator and when you found it in your caption and bibliography using the required citation format (generally MLA, APA, or Chicago/Turabian).*
Creative Commons screenshot by Amy Nickless

Creative Commons screenshot by Amy Nickless

Locating Public Domain Images

I can’t really give steps to locating public domain images.  There is not a single search interface like Creative Commons offers.  However, I can point to places to check.  Again, be sure to double-check the restrictions on each image to ensure they are fully in the public domain, as some government-held images could be under copyright by their creator (ex. the images are scanned on loan or donated by citizens as opposed to government produced).

  1. Europeana:  To search Europeana for public domain images, the process is different.  Go to their website, conduct a search, then go to the sidebar on the left.  In the sidebar, click copyright to expand the menu.  Next, scroll down and select “Public Domain marked.”  The search will automatically adjust.
    • Note:  This method can also be used to search for creative commons images by each individual license type.
  2. American Memory: American Memory is the Library of Congress’ digital library.  To search this collection, you can use keywords or browse.  The browse search box “Browse Collections Containing” offers ways to look at only images; it is located on the right hand menu in the second box..  If you use keywords, conduct the search, then select “Gallery View” under the search box to view pictorial results.  Otherwise, the works are listed by name.
  3. Prints & Photographs Online Catalog:  Also offered by the Library of Congress; this is their full image repository.  While it offers an advanced search, it is very limiting and not recommended except for changing the search field.  The rights on these images are easy to check; just look for the tab reading “obtaining copies.”
  4. The Commons on Flickr:  The Commons offers public domain images offered by government and cultural institutions.  These results will not always show up in the Creative Commons Flickr Search.
  5. The Digital Public Library of America, which is in development and scheduled to debut in April, 2013, may be a future source of public domain images. Update 2014:  It is.

And remember, cite the photo!  Use the same guidelines as with the “Locating Creative Commons Images” point 7.

Do you know of other places that offer Creative Commons or public domain images?  If so, please share!  Do you have any questions?

*Links here are for the sub-page that deals with images and/or captions.
**The earlier Google Images post was also updated to reflect the change.


7 thoughts on “Searching for Creative Commons and Public Domain Images

  1. Thank you for putting this guide together! I have been using Flickr’s Commons almost exclusively, and really needed the reminder that there are more options out there.

  2. Pingback: More Creative Commons and Free Image Searching | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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