Public Domain photos - what are the rules & how do you find them?

6 replies
Hi all - would love to find some great public domain images for projects I'm working on. I'm really foggy on the rules about all this. A few questions:

  • Can you automatically use any public domain issue for anything, even commercial purposes?
  • How can you confirm if an image is in the public domain? Someone here posted a great list of sites that include public domain images, but I've poked around a lot and can't figure out which images are in the public domain, etc. Is it that anything printed before a certain year is a free-for-all? Are there exceptions I need to be aware of?
  • Can you alter public domain images - change the coloring, add text or other graphics on top, etc. - without limitation for commercial use? For example, could I use part of a public domain image as the background for a business logo?
Thank you so much for any help!
#domain #find #photos #public #rules
  • Profile picture of the author leeannprice
    Some great places to find public domain images are archive.org, usa.gov, Library of Congress site - loc.gov/pictures


    You can even search Google Images using advanced search. To do that, you will want to click on “Advanced Image Search.” The Usage Rights option is located toward the bottom of the page. With this new feature, Google provides us with a few options: select this option - Labeled for commercial reuse with modification. Most of these pictures will be public domain, but just to be safe read the license for each one.

    If a picture is in the public domain you can modify it and use it however you like.

    For the most part on the govt. sites - all the images are public domain.

    Hope this helps.

    Lee Ann
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  • Profile picture of the author tj
    Originally Posted by helterskelter View Post

    Hi all - would love to find some great public domain images for projects I'm working on. I'm really foggy on the rules about all this. A few questions:

    • Can you automatically use any public domain issue for anything, even commercial purposes?
    • How can you confirm if an image is in the public domain? Someone here posted a great list of sites that include public domain images, but I've poked around a lot and can't figure out which images are in the public domain, etc. Is it that anything printed before a certain year is a free-for-all? Are there exceptions I need to be aware of?
    • Can you alter public domain images - change the coloring, add text or other graphics on top, etc. - without limitation for commercial use? For example, could I use part of a public domain image as the background for a business logo?
    Thank you so much for any help!
    Generally - all images published first in the USA before 1923 are in the public domain. You can change this images or parts of it as you like it as long as they do not have a trademark in it - for instance the Coca Cola sign etc. . You can find public domain images also on US Federal Government websites, but you will have to check also if there are any copyright regulations ( they would be also on their website.) Also - US federal government is using images that are licensed stock photos and this images are not in the public domain. Images that are in the public domain cannot be copyrighted anymore. Got more questions - let me know.

    Timo
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  • Profile picture of the author kabbalah
    It is my understanding that if a work is in the public domain, it is free for you to use or alter as you please. According to Wikipedia, "Artworks that are public domain may also be reproduced photographically or artistically or used as the basis of new, interpretive work". To me that means you can do as you please as long as it is in the public domain.
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    kabbalah

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  • Profile picture of the author Dan C. Rinnert
    Originally Posted by helterskelter View Post

    Are there exceptions I need to be aware of?
    As TJ said, "Generally - all images published first in the USA before 1923 are in the public domain." You just have to be sure that it was first published in the US and not a work first published outside the US and then published within the US at a later date but before 1923. Some of those may still have copyright protection.

    In addition to the trademark issues TJ mentioned, if an image contains a picture of a celebrity, the image may be public domain, but the person may still have a right of publicity in effect. So, you would be restricted in using that image, especially for commercial uses. A photo used for illustrative purposes may be okay; one used for more commercial uses may not be. In such a situation, the best thing to do is check with a lawyer. Or avoid using pictures of famous people. But, then make sure that it isn't a famous person you just don't happen to recognize. It doesn't matter if the person is deceased; the right of publicity can still be in effect after death.

    Federal government works not created by a third-party who may retain their copyright, such as when the government uses a licensed photo as TJ mentioned, are often public domain, but you have to be careful and check to make sure that it was a work created by the Federal government. Some organizations may sound like part of the Federal government but are not and so their stuff may be copyrighted.

    And certain works created by the Federal government may be public domain, but they can not be sold commercially unlike other public domain works. So, you have to be mindful of that if you're considering creating an info product that is heavily based on such a work.

    Works created by state and local governments can be copyrighted, so you need to be careful there as well. Some people think that any government work is public domain, but that distinction is really only for works created by the Federal government.

    And, while a work of the Federal government may be public domain within the United States, it may be protected by the Federal government's copyright in other countries, so that's also something you need to be aware of if you're publishing information on a website which may be accessible to a global audience.

    Also, I am not a lawyer, so nothing I write here should be considered legal advice.
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  • Profile picture of the author magnus1
    Does it have to be public domain? You can use free/paid royalty free images for the same purpose.
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  • Profile picture of the author Nirav Shah
    Always check for the watermark on any of the image, if at all there is any do not use that image, because it means that the image has copyrights.
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