I’m a big fan of the public domain. While copyright, trademarks and patents serve their purpose, for me – the little guy – they can seem like obstacles. All too often I find myself needing an image, a character, some music – something that I don’t have the time, money or talent to acquire.
Fortunately, there are options. Copyright-free and royalty-free images and resources are plentiful. There are billions of materials (yes, literally billions) that have no rights or restrictions on their use. The trick is finding them.
But before we begin, three disclaimers. The first rule of all this is: always verify something’s legal status before using it. If you can’t find any licencing information, assume whatever it is is covered by copyright. If you think an image is public domain, check. And check again. It’s not worth the headache of getting this wrong.
The second disclaimer is that I’m not a lawyer. This is not intended to be advice, merely a summary of information pulled from elsewhere – a list can be found at the bottom of the article.
The third disclaimer is that there are restrictions other than copyright, but that’s beyond the scope of this.
I mentioned headaches above. What sort of headaches? The kind that starts with a lawyer saying, for example, “remember that song you wrote almost 30 years ago? We are suing you for half of what you made from it.”
So, how do we avoid this perilous fate? Thankfully, images that are safe to use are often clearly labelled as such.
Creative Commons 0
An excellent place to start is to become acquainted with the Creative Commons site. Here is where you learn what you are looking for. While the rules vary from country to country, there are a few overarching principles.
Copyright provides the owner of material enormous power over that material. It restricts who can copy, distribute, modify and sell the material, among other protections. Creative commons, in contrast, lets people waive some of these rights. A person might decide to allow people to distribute their work, for example, but keep them from modifying it in any way. Someone else might say that people are free to do what they want with their work as long as it isn’t for commercial purposes. The exact protections vary.
It’s worth having a read of the different levels of protection. The granddaddy of them all, the gold standard, is Creative Commons 0 (CC 0). Anyone can use any material labelled CC 0. You can take it, share it, modify it, sell it, slap it on the side of a missile, whatever. If you see CC 0, you are good to go.
Well, almost. There’s still one thing to check.
If you ever see “some rights reserved”, check out what that means.
There is one restriction that can (though doesn’t always) apply to CC 0, and that’s attribution. Essentially, you can use the material for whatever, but you must include a link back to the original source. That’s not a bad deal, given that you are getting something for free. Still, it’s an easy thing to overlook. And if you forget to include attribution, your use of the material is not covered.
Some folk are very nice with this and explicitly state that they do not require attribution. In that case, you are under no obligation. Still, it’s a good habit to get into. I keep a text file in my Pictures folder. In it, I make a note of the link of the source material and the date I accessed it. If and when I use, modify and/or distribute the image, I attribute it.
Attribution where it’s not needed is overkill. So is Creative Commons 0, if you are using it for private use – there are different levels of protection that will cover you just as well. Still, it’s better to be safe than sued. And there is so much CC 0 stuff out there that it hardly seems limiting.
[Speaking of attribution: the Creative Commons logo I used as the header image is available through their website.]
Resources and Search Engines
The biggest, broadest tool for finding CC 0 material is the Creative Commons search engine aggregator.
I keep it bookmarked so I can easily search for photos, music, whatever. Note the disclaimer:
[Creative Commons] has no control over the results that are returned. Do not assume that the results displayed in this search portal are under a CC license. You should always verify that the work is actually under a CC license by following the link.
Some sites, like Flickr, have different licences for each photograph. In Flickr’s case, the licencing information is usually detailed near the image. There’s also the Commons category for public domain images.
Other sites such as Unsplash, Graphic Burger and Pexels only host CC 0 materials (in these cases, they are attribution-free as well). If a site has a licencing page, read it carefully before using any of the images.
The following sites are a wealth of public domain material. You can use these in your own projects, even if you modify them or are using them for commercial purposes. Always check material before you use it – look for CC 0 and remember to give credit to the source (just to be safe).
Flickr Commons – public domain images
Graphic Burger – logos, icons, backgrounds, etc
Unsplash – curated photographs
Pexels – free stock images
You can see me using CC 0 images to great effect in my Spellcaster Art post.
Have I missed any awesome CC 0 resources? Share with everyone in the comments because, as the Creative Commons site says: when we share, everyone wins.