Pros And Cons Of Using Public Domain Images

It used to be that journalists and writers would hire and pay for professional photographers to take pictures they need for their writing projects. Or they could be  hobbyist photo nuts themselves who will do the job. Then came the internet with royalty-
free stock photos they can avail of for a reasonable membership fee. Today, the internet not only has them but is flooded with sites offering images in the public domain totally free of charge.  What’s the catch? 

Advantages of Using Public Domain Images

They’re free.  Who wouldn’t want to get their images downloaded from the internet that’s royalty- free and with none of the permission requirements and legal encumbrances that come with copyrighted images?  That’s why images in the public domain is often the first online resources that writers, journalists and students first look when supporting their dissertations, thesis, articles, and blogs with images and illustrations to bring the message in a clearer and more dramatic manner.

The public domain sites collectively house the hundreds of thousands of digital photo choices covering just about any subject under the sun – from simple texture tiles to the NFL Superbowl and anything in between.  The wealth of choices alone is staggering. And the collection is growing every day. The public domain provides zero-cost to information online.

Copyrighted works have restriction against adapting them to come up with a derivative work without the owner’s permission.  What that means as applied to images is that you can’t convert a full color photo to black & white or colorize a monochromatic original and publish it online without the permission of the owner.  On the otherhand, no such restrictions apply for images in the public domain.  You can do whatever you want with them.  You can crop, use sections of it, change color temp and exposure, manipulate in Photoshop, etc.

Disadvantages of Using Public Domain Images

They’re free.  And as the saying goes, you get what you pay for, or don’t.  Most photos in the public domain have been sourced from amateur photographers using point and shoot cellphone cameras.  Not to indict them, but nothing beats photos taken by professionals with the right lighting and exposure settings that are always the stock of which licensed photos are made of.

And while there are also a great number of public domain images in various sites that exude excellent high resolution quality, there’s always a good chance that the image you need the most is not.  Many have been resized from their high resolution versions in paid sites and are too small to even quality for a decent print.  That won’t be much of a problem for online publication.  But with picture sizes from  CIF to QVGA resolution, they won’t look as good when printed on paper for a magazine.

It’s not uncommon that public domain images for the same topic are found in many image sites that offer them for free downloads.  And most online publications would have used them earlier than you and now, you would just be another statistics using the same images.  As a writer or blogger, you lose the impact of an image if many people have already seen it.  It then becomes just a mere décor item on your work, adding no significant value to it other than being just relevant.

Many online sites offering free images often have a disclaimer stating that they are not responsible if some of its pictures thought to be in the public domain turns out to be a copyrighted work.  The accountability falls on the person unknowingly using a copyrighted mage without having sought permission to use it.  Someone could email you with the license numbers to the photo asking you to take down the photos you used.  And if you don’t comply, you risk getting sued in violation of the copyright act.

Have you ever heard of model release?  That’s another permission you need to get from people in the photo you have freely downloaded from a public domain site. The image may be free, but if the subject contains a recognizable person, you need to get his or her permission that you’re using an image with the person in it.  This is the model release and there’s a form that you need to fill out and signed by the model(s) in the picture.  Bear in mind that the definition of “model” in this context does not distinguish a commercial model or celebrity from an ordinary Joe or Mary.  The only situation where a model release is not needed is when using photos for news articles called editorial use photos. Otherwise, you need one.  Most free image sites don’t have such model releases for their stock photos with people in it.


Knowing the pros and cons, it’s possible to get a middle ground where you could get half the advantage and half the problems.  There are sites that offer images under the Creative Commons licenses.  Short of invoking their “all rights reserved” privilege under the Copyright Act, owners of these images  waive certain rights to make their images more accessible to a wider audience and thus, open more markets to expose their photo-taking skills. 

For instance, most CC licensed images will require attribution for getting the images for free.  That means acknowledging the owner or organization that owns the image.  Many of these images are high quality high resolution 2k photos with file sizes between 700k and 3MB and are exactly the kind needed for excellent printing jobs in magazines.  You won’t have as many choices though, but the one you get is sure to be print-ready.

Most CC licensed photos will allow you to copy, distribute, display and create derivative works from them – things you could do with pure public domain images.  But apart from attribution, you may be limited to just personal, academic, scholarly or non-commercial use of these photos.  That means you can’t profit by them by getting advertising dollars on the pages that carry those images, unless you have permission or deal with the image owners