Public Domain Pictures

Michele Wanke

Obtaining public domain pictures is easier than you might think. However, before you help yourself to other people's photos, there are a few rules you should be aware of.

What are Public Domain Pictures?

Not all photos posted on the Internet are in the public domain. Just because an image is accessible on the web doesn't make it free to use in any way you choose.


Photographs are protected by copyright; unauthorized use is illegal. The majority of the images in the public domain are free of copyright restrictions. However, it is vital that you examine the terms and conditions of use before using a picture that you didn't take. In most cases, all that's required to use an image is the addition of a credit line. By crediting the source, you can avoid infringement issues.

Rights Managed

Photos that are "rights managed" can only be used in a limited capacity. In addition, an ongoing fee will be assessed each time you post the image. The fee is dependent on how and where you want use the image, and the duration of use. To avoid costly fees, it's best to use a restriction-free public domain picture.

How to Determine if a Photo is in the Public Domain

Since copyright notices are no longer required in the United States, determining whether a photo is in the public domain can be tricky. It is important that you never assume that lack of notice means a photo isn't protected by copyright. You can determine whether a picture is in the public domain by the following criteria:

Government Photos

Any image taken and published by the U.S. government is not protected by copyright. Therefore, a good source of public domain photos is the federal government.

Lack of Copyright

If an image was published prior to 1989, it required a copyright notice. All photos published after 1989 are generally restriction free and available for use by the public for free unless otherwise stated.

Expiration of Copyright

After a set amount of time copyrights expire. Once that happens, the image enters the public domain and individuals are allowed to use it freely. To determine the expiration date of a photo's copyright you need to know when the picture was published. Upon obtaining this information, you can determine which copyright term applies.

Specific Public Domain Photo Sites

Some photographers encourage the use of their images, so they post them on public domain websites. There are hundreds of public domain photo sites on the Internet featuring thousands of restriction free images. These sites typically have a highly visible written statement posted on the main page stating that the works published are in the public domain.

The one caveat with public domain photo sites involves pictures that feature identifiable individuals. If you want to use a photo which includes a recognizable person, you must obtain permission first. If you don't, you could be charged with violating privacy rights. Individuals have a legal right to privacy, and the use of their likeness for commercial advertising typically requires a written consent agreement.

Popular Sources of Public Domain Photos

  • An enormous collection of high-resolution public domain photos and wallpapers. You may use these images for any purpose, including commercial.
  • Thousands of free high-quality public domain photos available for personal and commercial use. Sorted by categories, easy to search.
  • Public Domain Photo Gallery: Thousands of current categorized photos free for public use, including a large collection of black and white images.
  • Art Renewal: Images of the works of more than 2,600 realist painters, many in the public domain.
  • Features more than 430 flags of countries listed alphabetically. Also features U.S. state flags, and other historical images.
  • New York Public Library: This public domain site features more than 500,000 images scanned from books, including illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints and photographs. The collection is vast and impressive; however, there is a per-image usage fee even for public domain images.

A Final Word About Public Domain Photos

Whether you are looking to post an image to your website or you need a photo for a term paper, public domain pictures are your best bet. Just remember to read the terms and conditions prior to using a specific photo to avoid violating copyright laws. In addition, if you are interested in sharing your own photos with the world you may do so by adding to them to the thousands of cyberspace galleries featured on the Internet.

Public Domain Pictures