If you are looking for an image without a copyright, there are many options. These include public domain images, Creative Commons license or inexpensive stock photos.
However, there are some things to keep in mind when using copyright-free images. The most important is whether or not the work has been “transformed.” Adding a little bit of your own creativity does make it less likely that a work will be copyrighted.
Images in Public Domain
Often, when an image enters the public domain, it becomes free of any copyright restrictions and can be used freely by anyone. This can happen when the creator of the work abandons all rights to it or when the copyright expires. For example, a photograph of a building that is no longer standing can be freely used since it is no longer protected by copyright laws. In addition, certain images such as ideas, methods and systems cannot be copyrighted (for instance if someone wrote a book about black and white photography and included illustrations that explain a new method for taking photographs in this style, they may still hold the copyright on the work but others can use the method without permission).
There are a number of websites that host a large collection of images that have entered the public domain. Some of them, such as Wikimedia Commons and Flickr, display their licenses so that users know the specific restrictions on each photo before using it. However, these sites are not the only places to find images that are in the public domain and it is important to review each photo carefully before using it.
Some museums, libraries and archives also make their images available for free online with a variety of restrictions. These typically include restrictions on commercial use and the number of copies that can be made. This is usually done to protect the integrity of their collections.
In addition, some sites such as Unsplash and Pixabay are dedicated to the creation of images that are freely usable by everyone without any licensing restrictions. While these are a great resource for many images, there are other sites that have more restricted usage policies such as prohibiting the use of any image with an identifiable brand or request attribution if it is used on a website.
Another great option is the Smithsonian Open Access site which came to the party late but offers 2.8 million images that are freely usable for any purpose. They are easy to browse and can be found in a wide variety of categories such as Paintings, Architecture and Outer Space. This is a great way to find beautiful and inspiring images that are truly not subject to any licensing restrictions.
Images with Creative Commons License
Images are copyrighted by default, but the owner of the image can choose to make it available for certain purposes, such as non-commercial use, with a Creative Commons (CC) license. Images that are not copyrighted can be freely used, but it is important to check for a CC license or a statement in the photo description to see what the restrictions are and what they mean. If an image has a CC license, it means that the rights granted under that CC licence are only valid if you follow its terms. Breaching any of the terms may breach copyright, and this is considered to be copyright infringement.
CC licensed images are usually displayed with icons that indicate what is allowed and not allowed. You can find these on sites such as Wikipedia Commons or Flickr, and on some websites that specialise in free image collections, like Unsplash. You can also limit your search for these types of images to a specific website by using their filter for CC photos.
All CC licensed images will require that you provide credit to the author of the work, but how you do this depends on the licence. For example, if the licence is CC BY-NC, you can use the image for any purpose as long as you do not modify the image and you give credit to the author. This is the most restrictive CC licence, but it is still a lot more liberal than copyrighted images.
Other CC licenses allow you to make commercial uses of the image, but you are required to attribute the image and must keep the author’s name on the work. Some CC images will require you to attribute the author as well as the specific work, while others only require that you provide a link to the original work.
You can easily search for CC images online, but it is best to consult an expert or actual legal advice if you are unsure what your rights are. You should always err on the side of caution, especially when it comes to putting a commercial spin on a visual, as this could put you in violation of copyright law.
Images with Copyright License
There are many sites on the web that offer images with a license that will let you know what kind of permissions you have for using them. Generally these photos will have a CC (Creative Commons) logo or other indication that they are licensed under a CC license. These are photos that you can use for commercial or non-commercial purposes as long as credit is given to the photo creator. You can find these kinds of photos on sites like Wikimedia Commons, Flickr Commons, and Pexels.
Most images that are copyrighted will have a watermark indicating that you cannot take them without the explicit permission of the image owner. This is often the case if you are trying to use an image for commercial purposes or in a way that violates the photographer’s privacy.
However, if you are using an image for one of the exceptions in copyright law, then you may be able to take the photo without permission. These include if you are using the image to beautify something or make it more visually appealing, or if you are using the image as part of a “transformative work” which is not only a new type of visual art but also changes the nature of the original work, such as creating a video or making an infographic from the image.
If you are unsure whether an image is protected by copyright or not, then it is best to ask the image creator or check the image’s metadata. The information will tell you what copyright protection the image has and how you can contact the owner for permission. You can access the image’s metadata by right clicking on it in Windows or opening it in macOS with a utility such as Preview or iTunes.
There are so many resources for free or inexpensive images that it is unnecessary to risk violating copyright by using an image without permission. In most cases it is better to search for a different image or to get permission from the author or purchase stock images. If you have questions about specific images or need help determining the best image to use, then please feel free to make an appointment with the Digital Librarian.
Images with Fair Use License
If you are in a hurry or don’t want to deal with determining copyright status of images you find online, there are a number of sites that will offer you curated selections of non-copyrighted images. These are often offered under licenses that permit the authors to state which rights they retain and which they want to abandon for the benefit of others. These are usually known as Creative Commons (CC) licenses. There are a wide variety of CC licenses, from those that release works into the public domain to those that require attribution.
Another way of finding non-copyrighted images quickly is by searching through the collections of museums and libraries. Many of these make their image collections available for free through websites like Wikimedia Commons or Flickr. These are generally labeled with their CC license information, and restrictions, if any, will be clearly listed.
You can also search through photography licensing platforms that allow photographers to sell their images at fair prices for both editorial and commercial use. One example is EyeEm Market, where you can browse and choose images for a reasonable price that is good for both the photographer and the user.
There is also the possibility that the images you are looking for fall into one of the rare exceptions to copyright that is referred to as fair use. As long as the image is being used for educational or scholarly purposes, and only a limited audience will see it, then it may be fair to use without permission from the author. This is a complicated area of law, and each situation should be evaluated carefully.
It is important to note that even images that have been deposited into the public domain and those covered by a Creative Commons license are still protected by copyright, so always be sure to cite the source of any images you use. You should also be aware that if you are using an image that has been provided to you by a library database or other service then it is likely that you will need to obtain specific permission for it, in addition to the standard fair use exceptions discussed above.