Finding Copyright-Free and Free-to-Use Images

Is our new online teaching reality exacerbating your copyright anxiety? In this post, we’ll provide some sources and search strategies for images you can use freely. 

 Photograph of tall bookshelves, with marble busts along the ends of the shelves.
Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

Several sources for free stock photos have popped up in the past few years. Unsplash bills itself as “the internet’s source of freely usable images,” and hosts over 1 million high-resolution photographs made available under the Unsplash license. Under the license, all photos published on Unsplash can be used for free, for commercial or noncommercial uses, without permission or attribution (although attribution is encouraged). The exception is that you may not compile Unsplash photos to create a similar service. Similar free stock photo sites include Pexels, Reshot, and; see also this great roundup of 28 free stock photo sites. Be sure to check the license for each site to make sure it permits your particular use of the image. 

An illustration of an armored knight on horseback.
A Tournament Contest, artist unknown, ca. 1560-1570. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Many museums have made their collections (well, digital images of their collections) free to use, whether with the Creative Commons CC0 license or another license permitting reuse. The Creative Law Center has a great roundup (scroll to the bottom of the post). The jousting knight to the left comes from a digitized 16th-century German book in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Open Content Program

Some image sites and search engines that aren’t exclusively free-to-use also permit you to filter results by license. On Flickr, for example, you can filter your search results by license type to identify images with any Creative Commons license, images for which commercial use or modifications are permitted, or images without any copyright restrictions. You can filter Google Images search results by usage rights as well (after running your search, click “Tools” underneath the search bar, then “Usage Rights”). Just double-check the rights with the image source – Google doesn’t always get the usage rights right. 

Photograph of a white ptarmigan on a branch
Ptarmigan, Denali National Park and Preserve (from Flickr)

You can use the Creative Commons Search to search across more than 300 million images usable under Creative Commons licenses. Most of the images come from Flickr, but hundreds of thousands come from museum collections (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum). After searching, you can filter by the specific Creative Commons licenses to find images that permit (or prohibit) commercial use and modification, or images that require attribution (or don’t). 

Black and white drawing of an ice cream coneWhat if you just want an icon or symbol, not a photograph? Try The Noun Project. You can create a free account and use the entire collection as long as you credit the icon’s creator; with a paid account ($39.99/yr/person), attribution is not required. Without a pro account, the attribution will be a part of the image you download.

What if you see an image on Wikipedia that you want to use? Good news – you probably can! Subject to the terms of its license, that is. To check, click on the image, then on “More Details” in the lower right-hand corner. You’ll get to the image’s page on Wikimedia Commons, and the license details will be described at the bottom of the page. Most of those images are under some sort of Creative Commons license, so you may be required to attribute the creator or be restricted from commercial uses. You can also search across all Wikimedia Commons images.  

Finally, images don’t stay under copyright forever, and although it’s not always easy to determine copyright status, you can at least be sure that any work first published in 1924 or earlier has now entered the public domain in the United States. The Library of Congress has gathered free-to-use images from its digital collections, most of which are in the public domain. Check out Old Book Illustrations for, well, old book illustrations; most are in the public domain but you should check the image details to be sure. Project Gutenberg provides e-book versions of works in the public domain, many of which contain illustrations; for example, poor Conrad, above, from Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter

There are many, many more sources for free-to-use images online! We haven’t even talked about images created by the U.S. government, which cannot be copyrighted (try’s image search). There are also some great free-to-use fonts; I’m itching to find a project where I can use Dana Library Hand or the beautiful initials from this digital edition of Euclid’s Elements (scroll down for initials font). Do you have any go-tos we haven’t mentioned? Let us know in the comments!