Definition Of Public Domain Images.

Images spice up any write up and add to its appeal to readers. Modern writers and journalists refer to the World Wide Web as a content resource where they can have free access to copyright-free images for their writing projects.  These images are considered free content that has no legal restriction on a user’s right to copy, redistribute or modify.  They are also called images in the public domain.

But let's be clear. This does not mean that any image placed on the internet is free for use in the public domain.The owner or originator of the image must expressly clearly that this image is given to the public domain.

In legalese speak, public domain images are creative or original works not protected under intellectual property laws.  They are images whose copyrights have expired, or were never copyrighted.  In other words, a public domain image assumes that the creator of the work has relinquished his work to the public or can no longer claim exclusive rights over it.  The work is now owned by the public.  Once an image enters the public domain, anyone can copy, manipulate, distribute, display or simply use it anyway he wants without legal encumbrances.  To put it more bluntly, granting an image to the public domain is a total unconditional abandonment of all rights to the image.

Public Domain vs Creative Commons Licensed Images

Apart from images that already belong in the public domain and which you can download and use without obligation or legal infirmities, there’s a group of photos you can also download and use for free that are, however, still protected under the country’s IP laws.  These are licensed under the Creative Commons (CC).  There’s an owner who has copyrighted the work to his name but has allowed his work to be used by anyone for personal, educational or non-profit non-commercial purposes.  Depending on the CC license used, images can be copied, distributed, adapted or altered, provided that the owner or creator of the image is acknowledged which is called attribution.  No such thing is needed for images in the public domain.  

Ethical Responsibilities

While public domain images allow you to use the images anyway you want,  ethical considerations may compel users to at least acknowledge the creator or owner of a PD image if the information is there.  Many of these images found online have been donated by news, science, medical, academic, historical and cultural organizations, privately held or from the government.  For instance the Russian International News Agency recently donated 100 historical photos from its collection to the Wikimedia Commons.  NASA, likewise, has been regularly doing the same thing as NASA photographs are not generally protected by copyright unless otherwise indicated.

Acknowledging the creator or owner of a photograph is called attribution in the copyright jargon.  Not only does it demonstrate respect and appreciation to the creator or owner of the work, it can impart a level of credibility to the image and to the work in general, especially if the source or owner is an authority in the subject.  Users can simply make  statements like “Courtesy of NASA” or go into more specifics like “Courtesy of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, taken 2007”   This attribution often ends a photo caption.

Major Sources of PD Images

There are several online sites that provide public domain images that are commonly referred to as stock photos.  Many of these sites require free registration before you can download these images for free.  And while each image does not enjoy IP protection, some of the sites offering them have copyrighted the images under the name of the site.  Some of the largest collection of public domain images can be categorized, but not limited, to the following:

    • Photographs of Artistic Works     Photos of art paintings belong in the public domain. A photo of the Mona Lisa cannot be copyrighted because it constitutes just a copy or facsimile of the real original work.  But if the photo is a unique shot of people milling around the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre, it becomes an original work and can be copyrighted.


    • Historical Images       Copyrights expire after a certain period of time and the works automatically enter the public domain. The copyright period is usually 70 years on top of the remaining lifetime of the work’s creator or owner.  All works copyrighted or published in the US prior to  January 1, 1923 are now in the public domain.  You can be sure that photographs made in the early part of the 20th century  are all in the public domain.  Most of those photos that have survived can be found in many state library sites as well the US Library of Congress, along with sites from historical commissions, museums, universities and foundations.
    • Images from Government Photo Archives    Photos originating from or taken under the auspices of any government federal office as well as those from other governments are ineligible from domestic IP protection and are considered in the public domain. Hence, you have historical photos from various federal historic commissions, animal photos, tourist spots, landmarks and wildlife preserves from parks and wildlife, tourism and environmental agencies, scientific research photos from government libraries, museums, and health care centers, etc..


    • Search Engines    Google and Bing can bring up public domain images associated with any topic you are searching for and there are various search engines that specialize in finding free public domain images.  This includes sites like which can search millions of public domain photos from various sites.

How to know if an Image is in the public domain

Images in the public domain may indicate they are in the public domain.  On the other hand, copyrighted images are no longer required by law to use the copyright notation. It used to be that published photos contain a copyright notation that contain the international copyright symbol “C” inside a circle before the year first published and the owner or creator’s name or organization.  But after March 1st 1989, this is no longer required under the revised Copyright Act. 

If you encounter an image in an online site that is neither indicated to be in the public domain nor has a copyright notation,  you can assume that it is copyrighted.  If you want to use this image, contact the publisher or owner of the work where the image is used to seek permission.  While you won’t be sued if you use the image for personal non commercial purpose, you may still be asked to take it down if the owner discovers you had used it without his or her permission. 

To be sure that you are downloading images in the public domain, simply email the site owner or article owner if the image used is copyrighted and indicate your request for permission to use and your objective.  Otherwise, there are countless online sites that offer free images in the public domain.