Sourcing Pictures: Using the Power of Public Domain

Trio of pictures by Michelangelo, Munch, and Geralt Public Domain

Many writ­ers are afraid to use pic­tures for top­ics they write about because they do not have an appro­pri­ate pho­to from their own dig­i­tal col­lec­tion. Of course it is best to use your own pic­tures. I take many pho­tos myself, but know there are many sub­jects which I write about where I don’t have an appro­pri­ate pho­to­graph or image to use. This is where pub­lic domain images become useful.

What do the Following Images have in Common?

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo 1511
Cre­ation of Adam by Michelan­ge­lo cir­ca 1511.
The Scream by Edvard Munch
Digital Girl by Geralt CC0 Public Domain from Pixabay
Dig­i­tal Girl by Ger­alt CC0 Pub­lic Domain from Pixabay

Each is an inter­est­ing image, but that is not the answer. The Cre­ation of Adam by Michae­lan­ge­lo, com­plet­ed in 1511, is a part of a fres­co paint­ed in the Sis­tine Chapel. The sec­ond is The Scream by Edvard Munch in 1893. The last image is by Gerd Alt­mann, (who goes by the han­dle Ger­alt on Pix­abay) cre­at­ed in 2017. All of these images have entered the pub­lic domain and are avail­able for you to freely use. In Altmann’s case this was a choice made by the cre­ator and many mod­ern pho­tog­ra­phers and artists sup­port free pro­vi­sion of their work.

What is public domain?


Pub­lic domain applies in two instances. First­ly where the cre­ator of some­thing gives use of it over to the pub­lic for their use. Sec­ond­ly where the per­son who cre­at­ed the pic­ture died more than sev­en­ty years ago.

Any pic­ture by Michelan­ge­lo, includ­ing the pow­er­ful Cre­ation of Adam (cir­ca 1511), are pub­lic domain works of art. Some­thing this old was nev­er sub­ject to copy­right at any time in his­to­ry. In the Case of Edvard Munch he died on Jan­u­ary 23, 1944, mak­ing all his art­work pub­lic domain since Jan­u­ary 24th 2014.

Pho­tographs of famous works of art, do in some coun­tries, car­ry their own term of copy­right. In the USA how­ev­er “exact repro­duc­tions of the orig­i­nals, can­not be copy­right­ed and are there­fore in the pub­lic domain.” This is law after a court deci­sion in The Bridge­man Art Library v. Corel Cor­po­ra­tion (1999), like­ly the law for future cas­es in most west­ern juris­dic­tions. You will find it almost impos­si­ble to take pho­tographs in art gal­leries because they wish patrons to pur­chase post­cards or books from their gift shop.

When a liv­ing artist or pho­tog­ra­ph­er has put a piece into the pub­lic domain, you must remem­ber they are still the copy­right own­er. It is con­sid­ered com­mon decen­cy to recog­nise the creator.

The Need for Images


When I start­ed writ­ing I knew that posts with images were more pop­u­lar than ones cre­at­ed pure­ly of text. It is not a case of words being inca­pable of com­plete­ly describ­ing some­thing. Humans use all of their sens­es to under­stand how things works. Many writ­ers use images to cre­ate white-space around the text to allow the eye to momen­tar­i­ly rest. The diver­sion can give a point of reflec­tion for the mind. Images also make works more inter­est­ing.

You may see images used and re-used in news­pa­pers and by TV reporters. New organ­i­sa­tions recog­nise the pow­er of a pic­ture and will re-use pic­tures. You will notice such pic­tures will say some­thing like “Pic­ture by Fred Smith, cour­tesy The Dai­ly Report.” Fred Smith could be the only news pho­tog­ra­ph­er for miles around. In some instances it is sim­ply not pos­si­ble to send new peo­ple to the area. News­pa­pers pur­chase pho­tos from com­pet­ing pub­li­ca­tions all the time. There is, how­ev­er, a mon­e­tary trans­ac­tion that hap­pens to use these pho­tos. Do not ‘bor­row’ from new organ­i­sa­tions — they are like­ly to demand a fee.

Images On-Line

There are mil­lions of images on-line. enter any sub­ject you like into a Google search and you will find an images tab on the search results, as shown here:

Google Images

Most of these images should NEVER be used. The rea­son is clear, they have copy­right attached to them (even if there is no copy­right sym­bol dis­played on the page).

All across the Inter­net there are many pic­ture libraries ready to sell you images for any­where between a few cents and a few hun­dred dol­lars. Get­ty Images and iStock­pho­to are exam­ples of stock pho­to libraries. They are not free pub­lic domain image providers, despite show­ing up in search­es for pub­lic domain images. Stock images are of great val­ue and I have often used them for com­mer­cial projects (where clients have a bud­get for art­work usage).

Flickr has some pub­lic domain images, but most have attrib­uted copy­right and state “all rights reserved” which means you can­not freely use them.

Most blog­gers, how­ev­er, do not have a bud­get to pur­chase pic­tures. Every pic­ture used on this site is either my own, or was sourced from pub­lic domain libraries where there is no cost for usage.

Public Domain Sources

President of the United States Donald J. Trump at CPAC 2017 February 24th 2017 by Michael Vadon from Flickr via Wylio
© 2017 Michael Vadon, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

There are many pub­lic domain sources you can use to obtain images, some include pho­tos relat­ing to recent news­wor­thy events. like the pic­ture here by Michael Vadon, of Pres­i­dent Trump, sourced from Wylio. Let’s face it many peo­ple wish to com­ment about Pres­i­dent Trump and his poli­cies — per­haps the most pop­u­lar top­ic of late. This way it is pos­si­ble to find rel­e­vant material.

Pho­tos about recent news­wor­thy events has often been a prob­lem, but not all pho­tog­ra­phers are look­ing to max­imise their incomes. Give Wylio a try.

Oth­er pic­ture sources include: Wiki­me­dia com­mons which has many his­tor­i­cal pic­tures; PixbayPex­els; Pub­lic Domain Pic­tures; Unsplash.

The sites that pro­vide pub­lic domain images change every day, many sites start their life pro­vid­ing free images, but then demand a sub­scrip­tion or pay­ment. You should reg­u­lar­ly check the sites you use to source images to ensure that those pro­vid­ed are still freely avail­able. Most sites are either fund­ed by adver­tis­ing or allow you the oppor­tu­ni­ty to donate to the artists and pho­tog­ra­phers who sup­ply the images.


Relevant Material

The fol­low­ing pages may be of interest




Buy Peter B. Giblett a cof­fee to thank him for dis­cussing use of pub­lic domain art­work, images and pic­tures. The images includ­ed here are from roy­al­ty free pub­lic domain sites, Pix­abay, Wylio, and oth­er locations.

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2 Replies to “Sourcing Pictures: Using the Power of Public Domain”

  1. […] Sourc­ing Pic­tures: Using the Pow­er of Pub­lic Domain […]

  2. […] was no copy­right when paint­ed or the copy­right has since expired) there is no copy­right. See “Sourc­ing Pic­tures: Using the Pow­er of Pub­lic Domain” for more infor­ma­tion about the rules about […]

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