A picture may be worth a thousand words, but finding the right picture can be a challenging task. And once you do find the perfect image, figuring out whether or not there are copyright restrictions attached to it, and what attributions might be needed can be even more challenging. This post will introduce you to some tools that aim to make that task more manageable.
Before we talk about where to find images, we first need to talk about copyrights. The author of an image has the right to determine whether or not the image may be reproduced or modified in any way, and they also have the right to be credited as the author any time the image is used. The phrase “all rights reserved” was once widely used to indicate that an author reserves all the rights associated with an image, meaning the image may not be reproduced without their permission. However, other authors are willing to waive some or all of the rights associated with an image and release it to be freely used, reproduced, and even adapted by others. An organization called Creative Commons has been instrumental in developing licenses for use by authors who want to allow others to use their work.
Any work that is licensed under Creative Commons will contain a copyright notice that begins with “CC BY.” If you see this notice accompanying an image, it means you are free to use the image as long as you give credit the author of the image. There are other restrictions that can be added to Creative Commons licenses, like Share Alike (“SA”), where the author specifies that any modifications of the image must be licensed under the same terms as the original, Non Commercial (“NC”), where the image may be used for any purpose except commercially, and No Derivatives (“ND”), where the image may be modified without the permission of the author.
There is a final Creative Commons category called “CC0,” which is where image authors have waived all rights and released the image into the public domain. An image that is licensed under CC0 means you are free to use and adapt the image in any way you like, and you are not even required to give attribution to the author. It is still a good practice to give credit where credit is due, but it is not legally required for CC0 or public domain works. “Public domain” is used to refer to older works of art after their initial copyright has expired. This is often 50 to 100 years after they were created. Copyright law varies by country, so if you want to use an older work, it is important to make sure that it is considered public domain in your country.
Now that we’ve talked about copyright rules, here are some websites that make it easy to find images that can be used, reproduced, and modified, with or without attribution.
Unsplash is one of my favorite websites for finding images because every single photograph on the site is licensed under CC0. That means that all of the photographers who contribute to the website have waived their rights to the images, including their right to attribution. Even so, Unsplash makes it easy for you to give credit to the photographers by letting you copy the attribution line any time you download an image.
Pixabay is another site that has CC0 photographs and images. Like Unsplash, Pixabay gives you the option to copy the attribution information whenever you download an image, even though this is not required under CC0. One thing to be aware of is that Pixabay does contain links to stock photo websites where you would have to pay for the images. But as long as you are searching Pixabay and not one of their affiliate websites, the images are free. Also, while Unsplash is limited to photographs, Pixabay includes both photographs and clipart.
If you are looking specifically for clipart, Openclipart is a collection of clipart that is all licensed under CC0. It does not offer you a place to copy the attribution information like Unsplash and Pixabay do, but you can see the author of the work listed any time you click on an image.
Wikimedia Commons is another repository of image and media files that can be used for free. While some of the works are CC0, others are licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY or CC-SA-BY licenses that require attribution. Every image in the repository is labeled with a license, and a link explaining what the exact terms of the license are. When you click on an image to download it, the website will tell you if you need to attribute the author and give you an option to copy the attribution information.
Although the image repositories mentioned above are great, not all of them are easy to search with Boolean terms (“AND” or “OR”) if you have a very specific image in mind. So occasionally, it is helpful to search Google Images if you are having trouble finding the exact image you need. However, one thing to be aware of with a Google image search is that the images it finds are sometimes subject to copyright, meaning you are not allowed to reuse them without the permission of the image author. Once you are on the results page of an image search, there is a Tools button in the menu bar under the search box. Click on the Tools button, and one of the options you see is “Usage Rights.” The default setting is “Not filtered by license,” which means that some of the images in the results list might be copyrighted. However, if you select one of the other options, it will narrow the search to images that can be reused. Note that you will need to follow the attribution licensing requirements for these images.