From Astronauts to Van Goghs: Little Known Sources for Public Domain Images

August 28, 2014

Looking for a photograph of a bull elk? Or a 1890s baseball card? Or a space shot from the Apollo moon launch?

Perhaps you have searched Creative Commons images and haven’t found exactly what you want. And you don’t want to pay a fortune or an attorney.

I’ve compiled a list of some little known resources of public domain images. As you will see, I had a lot of fun putting together this list.

 

Most of these images may be downloaded for free, but some of the sites charge a small “reproduction fee” or limit uses to non-commercial purposes. (Frankly, this restriction is legally questionable for public domain works.) Before you use an image, look for a link titled Rights and Permissions or Use Restrictions or something similar, since these permissions come in various flavors.

Almost all the sites request that you provide attribution to the source, always a good practice.

Take a moment and browse some of these sites. You’ll be inspired.

Museums

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Self-Portrait by Paul Gauguin Courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Until recently, many museums did not make images of their collections available for download. Instead, they claimed a copyright in the photograph of a painting, sculpture or other art, even through the underlying work was in the public domain. This was a weak argument at best and seemed contrary to the purpose of museums to provide public access.

More museums are coming around and putting images of public domain works online and permitting free downloads, often of high resolution photos.

J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute: More than 87,000 images are available for any use (including commercial), including photographs of the art and architecture of Italy over 30 years by German photographer and scholar Max Hutzel (1913–1988), paintings, drawings, manuscripts, photographs, antiquities, sculpture, decorative arts, artists’ sketchbooks, watercolors, rare prints from the 16th through the 18th century, and 19th-century architectural drawings of cultural landmarks.

New York’ Metropolitan Museum of Art has released more than 400,000 images for non-commercial use.

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum offers thousands of images, again for non-commercial uses only. Register with the Rijks Studio for more information.

Here a 2013 list of museums opening up collection. The list keep growing.

The New York Public Library collections hosts a huge collection of images and texts. At least as of this writing, they are charging a fee and limiting permitted uses.

U.S. Government sites

Generally, if a work was created by a government employee, the work is in the public domain. This includes historical records, weather images, military shots, wildlife photographs, even electron microscope images of viruses.

Here is a sampling of sites:

Baseball card

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress  has an expansive collection including personal journals from the Dust Bowl, early baseball cards, civil war maps, and historical images from the civil rights movement. Not everything is in the public domain. To determine the status of an image click on Rights and Restrictions.

For images of nature, weather and wildlife, try

For medical images such as MRI slices of the human body, try the National Institute of Health.

The Public Health Image Library of the CDC includes images of parasites and microscopic images of viruses including Ebola.

Even the Human Genome project offers public domain images.

The U.S. General Services Administration hosts a site full of information on government services and resources, including links to various sources of images.

Uncle Sam Photos claims to have a directory of sites for free government images.

States, communities, and historical societies maintain sites full of images, many of which are in the public domain. For instance here is a wonderful site called Kansas Memory maintained by the Kansas Historical Society.

The Kansas Memory site, like many others, places restrictions the use of its images, even those most likely in the public domain. They charge “reproduction fees.” I suspect their limitations would not stand up in court, but I am sympathetic to how thinly funded the historical societies are. So in all fairness, pay them their fees.

Here’s a non-government site which collects US historical images

Still haven’t found what you want? Here are lists of other public domain sites. This one from Wikipedia and another from Columbia University Library.

Have you found other valuable sources of public domain images? Please share them in the comments.

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Flower Beds in Holland by Vincent Van Gogh; Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

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3 responses to “From Astronauts to Van Goghs: Little Known Sources for Public Domain Images”

  1. Readers and writers,
    I received a link to another site offering thousands of free images that have been donated to the public domain. Check out http://www.goodfreephotos.com/
    Helen

  2. Dear Helen,

    Thank you for such a terribly useful compilation of image sources, very helpful and much appreciated. I think it is important for the young people to learn that just because something is on the Internet, it is not there for the taking. Especially the UNATTRIBUTED taking. /ML

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