As an artist, probably the last thing you want to think about when creating a new piece is intellectual property law. Sure, it sounds sexy, but truth be told, the subject can be a little dry.
Nonetheless, just as you want to protect your work from theft, others do as well (whodathunkit!). So, when you want to find an image to use as inspiration for your next art piece, what do you do? In the United States, copyright law states that,
To be copyrightable, a derivative work must be different enough from the original to be regarded as a new work or must contain a substantial amount of new material. Making minor changes or additions of little substance to a preexisting work will not qualify the work as a new version for copyright purposes. The new material must be original and copyrightable in itself. (Source)
In other words, if you just pick an image at random, you’ll have to do quite a bit of work with it to make sure you’re not stepping on the artist’s toes and infringing on his or her rights.
Fortunately, there are many websites out there that have loads of images with very flexible licenses, allowing you to use them without the hair-pulling limitations and unknowns involved with other types of images found online.
morgueFile is one of the oldest and largest free image resources on the ‘net. Their archive has over 250,000 royalty-free photos that are subject to a flexible license, even allowing for commercial use of their photos (as long as you’ve done something creative with it). Their site is clean and tidy, and very easy to use.
stock.xchng has also been around for a long time, and houses almost half a million images. They were recently bought by Getty Images, which also owns the microstock site iStockphoto, so occasionally you’ll click an image that takes you off stock.xchng and onto iStock. Overall, though, the navigation is fairly straightforward, and the license information for each image is easy to find.
Admittedly, Totally Free Images isn’t likely to win a design award in its current state, but when you have your pick of almost 500,000 public domain images, you’re apt to overlook the clunky structure of the site. The photos here come from old books that have gone out of copyright, and US government sources. Do a little searching around and you may just find a gem.
From the site: “Search millions of photographs from the LIFE photo archive, stretching
from the 1750s to today. Most were never published and are now available
for the first time through the joint work of LIFE and Google.” These images should be used with care (see below), but are an excellent source of inspiration, in any case.
Time claims blanket copyright to everything but this is simply untrue.
(see here and also see here) Anything more than 120 years old (i.e. –
before 1889) is generally safe. (exception is if the original author
died less than 75 years ago–45 years after these PD pictures have been
taken–, the author lived in a state with Common_law_copyright, and the name of the author is
known—and in that case Time itself is most likely in copyright
violation.) You must remove the watermark if you use the larger
Ars Publik is a good looking site that’s fun to browse. It doesn’t seem to have a very large collection at this point, but the quality of the work and layout makes it well worth a visit.
If you’re looking for an illustration rather than a photograph, the Open Clip Art Library has around 30,000 free images laid out in a clean and easy-to-use site.
Public Domain Photos has a growing collection of both photographs and clip art. Their gallery is easy to navigate, so you can find what you’re looking for quickly.
Easy Stock Photos is organized into categories, and has a basic Google search as well. While the total quantity of photos isn’t especially impressive, the breadth of topics that the photos cover is quite good.
Another site well organized in categories is Public Domain Images from Karen’s Whimsy. Leaning more toward illustrations than photographs, there are plenty of excellent free images to be found here.
Clker has a responsive search and many vector and photographic images. The download link is a little bit hard to find, though. When you view an image, look below it for a tiny disk icon. To the right of that you’ll see the different download options.
FreeImages.co.uk is one of the more difficult sites to navigate in this list (here’s a direct link to their gallery), but it does have quite a few good images to make it worth your while. To find the search feature, just look for the little magnifying glass icon on the left-hand side.
everystockphoto is a fantastic resource for finding free stock images. It searches millions of images across a range of websites (including flickr, which is slightly more complicated to search on its own) and is a great place to start your search for artistic inspiration.