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Copyright Law & 11 Places to Find Wonderful "Public Domain" Photography

News organizations, bloggers, and advertisers regularly search for photographs they can use to enhance their writing, but there are strict prohibitions concerning the use of photos protected by copyright law. If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can read the entire Copyright Act of 1976 here, or get a pretty good short explanation here.

The basics are these:

1. Every photo taken is protected by copyright even if the photographer doesn't register the image with any state or federal copyright agency. It is their "intellectual property."

2. There are substantial civil penalties for using someone else's copyright protected photos without their permission.

3. In many cases the copyright holder will simply send you an email or letter asking that you not use their photo, but they aren't required to do so before seeking compensation.

4. There are exceptions in the law for "fair use" of copyright protected photos, but it's complicated.

Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides the following concerning "fair use:"

The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright (source: 17 USC Section 107).

Commercial use does not qualify as "fair use" of copyrighted images, but what is included as "commercial," is not entirely clear. You can't sell copies of someone else's photograph, but other uses might also be considered "commercial."

The federal courts have given us insight into Interpreting Section 107 and this article published by Columbia University boils down some of the factors judges weigh to determine "fair use." However, it's still not crystal clear and few bloggers or advertisers want to hash out the nuances in court, so they either pay for the right to use a photo or seek out non-copyright protected images.

Many of the thousands of photos on Illuminate are ours, but we also use images taken by other individuals. Many amateur photographers post their images on photo websites that allow others to freely use them without express permission or even attribution. Those photos are said to be in the "public domain." Others "license" their work through the "Creative Commons."

Creative Commons: "Every license helps creators — we call them licensors if they use our tools — retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work — at least non-commercially. Every Creative Commons license also ensures licensors get the credit for their work they deserve. Every Creative Commons license works around the world and lasts as long as applicable copyright lasts (because they are built on copyright). These common features serve as the baseline, on top of which licensors can choose to grant additional permissions when deciding how they want their work to be used."

If you use Google images to find photos, you will note when you click through to the full size image that you often either end up at a web page that says that the photo was acquired from Getty Images or a similar organization that licenses photos for a fee, or at a Creative Commons [CC] page that contains information about how a photo can be used. Many photographers want attribution [credit] for their work and a link back to their CC web page.

As we noted above, there are also quite a few places to find wonderful photography that you can download and use commercially without a fee or even attribution. Below I've listed some websites with "public domain" photography. These websites either support or are fully composed of CC0 images available in the public domain. The image owners allow the public to freely use their photographs.

1. Creative Commons Search: CC Search is a tool that allows openly licensed and public domain works to be discovered and used by everyone. Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that created CC licenses. Their site boasts millions of images and you can find an endless supply of public domain photographs by using their search feature and narrowing the results to CC0 and public domain images.

2. Unsplash: One of the largest collections of public domain photography on the internet. We often use it to find pictures to go with the articles that we publish.

3. Much like Unsplash with an excellent selections of black and white photography too.

4. Flickr: Flickr is not dedicated to public domain images, but it has thousands which you can easily access by using the "License" feature in the upper left hand corner of their searchable web site. Simply enter your search term and then narrow it down to photos "with no known copyright restrictions."

5. Life of Pix: We recently found this web site that photographers use to highlight their work. There is some really wonderful and creative work here.

6. StockSnap: This is another recent find for us and it has an extensive collect of very high quality public domain photography.

7. Pixabay: If you have been writing for any length of time, you probably have used some of the great stock photos from Pixabay.

8. Flickr, the Commons: Contains endless collections provided by the Smithsonian Institution, New York Public Library, The U.S. National Archives, dozens of other museums, and libraries. We have spent many joyous hours here and it's one of the best places to find public domain historical photography.

9. Library of Congress: Another wonderful collection of mostly historical photography.

10. Vintage Stock Photos: The site contains both copyright protected photos and free images. It's a fun site to browse and their images span decades.

11. Burst: Wonderful stock photos and artistic images. Easy to use search feature, but it's not well stocked with photos capturing current affairs or news.

One last word of caution; never assume that an image posted on Pinterest is in the public domain. Many aren't.

*This is meant as a general guide to public domain photography. So, you may want to consult your lawyer before actively posting images on your website.


By: Don Lam & Curated Content

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