Tech Tip Tuesday: How to Find Public Domain and Stock Photos

Stock photos such as this are often available from sites with no licensing fee, just be careful to read the fine print.

This stock photo was available as a free download.

Did you hear the one about the small business owner whose web designer used a copyrighted photo on her site without permission? If you haven’t, you may not want to hear the rest of it. The bottom line is that it didn’t turn out well for the business owner, who had to pay a few thousand dollars to the rights-holder for using a copyrighted image without permission. It was a hard lesson to learn, and we’re hopeful this information can keep the same thing from happening to you.

The lesson that small business owner learned is that the appearance of an image on the internet without credit or attribution doesn’t mean that it’s freely available for anyone to use. Every image a photographer takes is protected by copyright law unless the image in the public domain because of its age or because it was taken by a U.S. government employee in the course of doing his or her duties (we can’t speak for other countries on this point, though). Because U.S. copyright law is fairly effective at protecting the creator of a work, using an image without permission can be a very costly mistake.

The good news is that there are many places online where you can find images that are available for most online uses and lots of them are completely free. You still may need to give an attribution to the photographer, but with a bit of creativity you can do that without impacting the quality of the image on your blog or website. With a bit of creativity you’ll start finding images that work for your needs. And, don’t be afraid to reach out to photographers or other website owners whose photography you admire. Sometimes they are willing to let you use their images with attribution and a link back to their site. But always ask, and always get it in writing.

Creative Commons Images

While every image a photographer creates is covered by copyright, a photographer can choose to make the image publicly available by a Creative Commons License. A CC license means that anyone can use a Creative Commons image without any fees, they just need to abide by a few requirements. Some levels of the license allow you do anything to the image, such as use it in an advertising campaign, while others may only be available for non-commercial uses.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons has over 19 million images available. They aren’t always the most creative, but they are free to use.

Flickr Creative Commons

Photo sharing site Flickr has an entire section devoted to photos available with a CC license, and they divide them by license type. If you only want to look at images that you can use for commercial purposes you can search just that category. Some of the photography is fantastic, but it can be a bit tedious to sort through.

Stock Photo Services

There are tons of stock photo services online, but many of them charge licensing fees. A few sites, including BigStock and GraphicStock allow a trial period with a certain number of free image downloads per day. The trick is that you have to give your credit card number and remember to cancel before the trial is up. However, if you’re able to manage that, in a week’s time you can amass a good library of useful stock images.

The following sites all offer free images, with a few restrictions on how you can use them. Bear in mind that some also offer premium photos, which do require a license fee. You have to read closely sometimes to make sure you are downloading a free image.