As a designer who frequently works with images, I am often on the search for good quality pictures to use in my work. However, I found that finding free stock images or taking my own photographs was often limiting and didn’t amount to many inspiring visual options. For some, this might not be an issue, but for those who love working with images and struggle to find great high resolution images, I would highly recommend looking into public domain image collections. I have personally been using public domain images in my work for about two years now and have been amazed at the quality of sources and the graphic possibilities that have stemmed from my own exploration and collection of open source content.
What is public domain content?
Public domain content is essentially any creative material that is not protected by intellectual property or copyright laws. To put it simply, public domain content is owned by the public and therefore free to use without restrictions. Although there are a several reasons why content might become public domain, here are a few common reasons outlined by Richard Stim of the Stanford Libraries:
- the copyright has expired
- the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
- the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
- copyright law does not protect this type of work.
It is important to note that not all of the content found in public domain collections is copyright free and it is crucial that you verify the copyright restrictions of the content that you wish to use. It is also important to note that collections of public domain images may have slightly different restrictions. For example, a collection of images may have copyright restrictions on the entire group of images, but the individual images may not be restricted (Stim, 2019). However, to make this differentiation easier, many organizations that publicize open source images will have filter options that allow you to search for only copyright free material.
How to use it!
Now, you may be wondering: how can I use it? Although it is legal to publish public domain content as it is and sell it, I personally refrain from doing this. When I use public domain material, I select a section or portion of the material to use it in a way that has little to do with the original format of the content. If you enjoy making zines and using collaged material, public domain content is perfect for finding and combining snippets of material to create original work, without having to worry about breaking copyright laws and running into legal trouble. Also, there are all sorts of image manipulation techniques such as recolouring, texturizing, and image tracing, which can allow you to repurpose and render public domain content in your own style.
Where can you find it?
One way to find public domain content is to simply slap “public domain images” into your preferred search bar and skim over the searches and articles until you find something that you like. Another option, is to look up institutions that have collections of art, film, photography, etc. such as museums, libraries, and other educational institutions and search their websites for public domain content. You’d be surprised to find out just how many institutions publish public domain content. A couple of sources that I personally use frequently are: the Smithsonian’s Open Access collection (https://www.si.edu/openaccess); the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections (https://digitalcollections.nypl.org); the Library of Congress’ Free to Use and Reuse Sets (https://www.loc.gov/free-to-use/); and lastly the Public Domain Review’s content (https://publicdomainreview.org/).
Things to look out for
As previously mentioned, it is extremely crucial that you pay close attention to the copyright restrictions of your images when you are looking through digital collections. I am reiterating this because many collections of public domain images will include images that are restricted by copyright laws, and if you aren’t looking out for these restrictions every step of the way, you might accidentally use an image that is protected by copyright (which is not a good look). Another thing to look out for is image/sample quality. Although there is a lot of wonderful content in the world of open access media, you may run into some files which are either too high quality, or too low quality to be usable. Content that has a very large file size may cause your software to crash while working with it and content that has a small file size, may distort or appear to be low resolution if you have to scale it up. To get around this I would recommend looking out for file sizes and content quality when downloading from public domain collections to save yourself some trouble when you go to use them in your preferred software.
With that, my fellow image enjoyers — good luck on your journey!
Stim, Richard. “Welcome to the Public Domain.” Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center, 4 Dec. 2019, fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/.
Alan Frenkel-Andrade is one of the graduates of the York/Sheridan Program in Design class of 2021. Catch Alan’s work showcased at the online graduate showcase on April 20–21. Visit ysdn2021.com for more details.