Are public domain libraries really useful?

Not just free, but free: Eleven contact points for pictures on the net [Update]

Photo: Wesley Fryer, CC BY-SA

Photos and other images are available free of charge on many pages. But there are some differences between “free”, “license free”, “public domain” and “freely licensed”. Eleven recommended sources for free images on the net. [Update: October 12, 2019]

Everyone knows what is free, but when is content actually “free”? Both terms do not necessarily mean the same thing. If images are under free licenses, they are usually free, but not always. However, free content is not automatically “free” - for example because it is provided with restrictive terms of use. Usually one of the following three models is hidden behind free photo offers:

"Royalty-free" content

The term "license-free" is a skewed translation of the English term royalty-free, which means something like: free of royalties or other usage fees. Such photos are available free of charge from many platforms. Strictly speaking, you usually still conclude a license agreement when you use the images - for example via the website's terms of use, which usually specify further requirements.

In addition, "license-free" can also refer to images that are sold by classic photo agencies for a fee, but which do not restrict how the images can be used after purchase. These images can be used indefinitely or multiple times, for example. If websites advertise “royalty-free” images, it is always advisable to take a closer look at the terms of use or license.

Public domain content

With the term "public domain" or public domain those works are designated for which there are no copyrights. There can be different reasons for this. Often the rights have expired: In the case of photographic works, the term of protection in Germany and other countries ends 70 years after the author's death. It is shorter for simple snapshots in which there is no creative effort. Then they are protected as a “photo” for 50 years from the date of publication. Official works such as legal texts are also excluded from copyright protection, which is rather rare for photos.

If you still have rights to photos, you can still use “Creative Commons Zero” (CC0, also public domain dedication) can be released for use without further conditions. As a result, they can be used like works in the public domain. Even if there is no obligation to do so, it can be advisable to mark content in the public domain and content with CC0 approval separately when used.

Content under free licenses

Free licenses allow works to continue to be used under certain conditions that the author or rights holder determines himself. The best known are the Creative Commons licenses, which consist of standardized license modules. They allow the content to be used without being asked if certain conditions are observed.

There are different views as to which variants of the Creative Commons licenses should really be considered "free". According to a common definition of “free cultural works”, you should be able to edit them and use them commercially. The term "Open Content" encompasses the more permissive and the more restrictive license variants.

In this article, provides ten contact points for public domain images and pictures below Creative Commons Licenses in front. If you want even more: The contributors to Wikipedia have compiled more than a hundred sources.

1. Wikimedia Commons

With a good 39 million image files, Wikimedia Commons is one of the most important points of contact for free images. The quality is mixed with the variety of content, but if you are looking, you will usually find it. Through cooperation with other institutions, some particularly interesting collections are available on Wikimedia Commons - for example from the Federal Archives, the German Photo Library or the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Most of the content uploaded to Wikimedia Commons is licensed under Creative Commons or in the public domain. The description page of the respective file shows this in detail. The page helps with further use of the content: If the link to a Wikipedia or image page is inserted there, the tool displays the necessary information.

2. Creative Commons on Flickr

At Flickr, the advanced search allows you to limit the results to freely usable images. About two thirds of the pictures published on Flickr under Creative Commons licenses are marked with the component “no commercial use” (non-commercial, NC). What is meant by this is not always clear. It is advisable to only use content with this condition if it is without a doubt non-commercial use.

Flickr also has its own "Commons" section with a search function. Photos and other digitized content are collected there, to which there are no longer any copyrights. They come from archives, museums and other organizations that participate in the program - such as the British Library, the Library of Congress or NASA.

3. Openclipart

Not every document and every invitation has to be provided with cliparts, but the Openclipart platform offers numerous well-designed illustrations for further use among the more than 130,000 images. The images are available as vector, image or PDF files; all illustrations have been given CC-Zero approval by the designers. Anyone can continue to use it in any way without further conditions.

4. Internet Archive

The Internet Archive, founded by Brewster Kahle, is a digital universal library that not only collects books, videos and computer games, but also digitized illustrations and photos. When it comes to licenses, it is worth taking a closer look at the respective detail pages, since, in addition to works in the public domain and freely licensed works, there is also content that cannot be easily used in European countries at least.

In order to be able to use the advanced search in a meaningful way, however, a basic course in information science is recommended, because relatively complex search queries can be necessary. Nevertheless, some discoveries can be made on the Internet archive: digital editions of “Little Memo” comics since 1905, for example, or illustrations of sea monsters of all kinds.

5. Library of Congress: Prints & Photographs Catalog

Many of the library's works and collections are also available in digitized form via the Library of Congress's catalog for prints and photographs. A large part of it, but not all of its content, is in the public domain, and in some cases the legal situation is not entirely clear - a look at the detailed descriptions and the information from the Library of Congress provides information.

6. Pixabay

There are currently around 1.2 million images on Pixabay. The platform from Ulm sees itself as a free, but high-quality alternative to stock photo providers, whose typical aesthetics are followed by many of the images published there. The individual images can be used without any further conditions; In addition, the Shutterstock payment service displays its own photos as advertising. Further information can be found in the terms of use.

Update August 2019: We can no longer unreservedly recommend the use of Pixabay, as the platform has now changed its license and the images are no longer published under CC Zero. More information: Pixabay is switching from Creative Commons approval to a self-made license

7. Creative Commons at 500px

Similar to Flickr, 500px from Canada sees itself as a photo community and offers photographers, among other things, sales functions for their pictures. The search results can be restricted to different Creative Commons licenses or the CC0 approval. A good 850,000 images have been approved accordingly. These are significantly less than with Flickr, but they are often well selected.

8. Open Access at The Met

The New York Metropolitan Museum is the largest art museum in the United States, and the Met has digitized part of its collection and made it available online. At the beginning of 2017, the museum started an open access program and largely abolished previously applicable restrictions on further use. At present, a good 210,000 of almost 450,000 entries in the online catalog are marked with the CC0 approval.

9. Google image search

The Google image search was streamlined in September 2020 and renewed in cooperation with image agencies: It now offers an easy-to-use license filter with which, for example, Creative Commons-licensed image material can be displayed in a targeted manner. The practical thing about the new feature: It displays the license information and also provides information on how to obtain permission to use an image and what to watch out for. The filter can be accessed via the “Advanced search” setting, which is also available in the mobile view.

10. CC Search

In June 2019, Creative Commons presented a completely renewed version of the search service "CC Search". It enables a targeted search and direct filtering of CC-licensed works on the web - whereby the CC search engine is initially limited to digital photos and images from around 20 different providers, such as Flickr, Rawpixel, Deviant Art and several museums from all over the world. Nevertheless, according to Creative Commons, over 300 million CC-licensed and released works should be searchable in these sources. CC Search presents the search results directly with previews; they can be filtered according to license type, source and other criteria. In addition, the files can be downloaded immediately with license information. (See also our article on how the new CC Search works.)

11. Small photo websites and blogs

In addition to the large platforms, smaller sites such as offer a clear but modern selection of photos. The Visualhunt service offers a cross-platform search for free images. Numerous photographers also maintain their own pages and blogs with free images, such as MMT by Jeffrey Bets or “Cupcake” by Nilsson Lee (both with CC0 approval). Every day, the Magdeleine site presents a selected photo under CC0 approval or one of the CC licenses. Foodiesfeed collects freely usable food photos, according to its own information there are around 800 images on the site. Photos under CC0 approval are well suited for use in software, apps or themes, as their use is not restricted by additional conditions.

Errors also possible with free licenses

Last but not least: At all of the contact points mentioned here, there is no one hundred percent guarantee that the photos will always be used as intended. License information can be incorrect, for example, because users do not have the necessary rights to issue a free license. Occasionally such incorrectly identified content appears on some platforms.

If the licensor does not have the necessary rights, the powers from the Creative Commons licenses also run out of steam. This is not a peculiarity of free licenses, because copyright law does not recognize a “good faith acquisition” of usage rights. The right to one's own image, which is not covered by free licenses, can also come into play if it should become apparent, for example, that a person depicted did not agree to the recording.

More information about free content and its use can be found in the dossier on the subject of Creative Commons. The practical guide to the use of Creative Commons licenses deals with other legal issues.

This article first appeared on March 27, 2014. It was updated in September 2017 to reflect new free content websites and services. Comments can refer to an old version of the post.
Update October 2018: We have deleted some comments that refer to pages that are no longer online. Update August / September 2019: We changed the paragraph to Pixabay and added a new paragraph to CC Search. Update October 2020: The paragraph on Google image search has been renewed.

On the topic at


  • 1egghat (@egghat)on March 27, 2014 at 11:45 am


    * I * would have liked to have a Flattr button on this page ...

  • 2Wolfgang Starroston October 29th, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    I would be happy if my page could be included in your listing for providers of free photos in the event of an update.

    The site is still in its early stages, but gradually more and better images will be added. Just take a look and take a picture yourself ;-)

    Many Thanks,

  • 3Raffaelon June 23, 2015 at 1:28 am

    So I'll join Wolfgang and suggest There are also only photos in the public domain (CC0 license).

  • 4Jürgen Plieningeron August 29, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    The last time I stumbled upon Pexels, a service that is very similar to the Pixaby mentioned above.

  • 5Jonason October 31, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Thank you for the many sources! I think that this list is still missing, here you can find a large selection of free, CC0 license images.

    In addition, I recently wrote an article ( on how to get free, royalty-free images in WordPress so that you do not have to search on external sites.

  • 6Jonas on January 3rd, 2016 at 11:33 pm

    I can also recommend I'm always on the go when I have to illustrate things. Free images and royalty-free (CC0).

    Greetings, Jonas

  • 7Martin Bernhardton August 5th, 2016 at 4:28 pm


    great, royalty-free photos under the cc0 license can also be found at

    We used a photo of a blue sea lagoon at sunrise for our website: [link removed]

    I then wrote to the author again, he was happy and confirmed again that he had made the picture freely available and is now happy that I even mentioned him on the website.

    Best wishes,
    Martin Bernhardt

  • 8Manuelaon August 18th, 2017 at 12:28 PM

    Are (almost) all websites still used in the same way? 2 no longer exist and some in English, which I can't. And I don't always trust Google translation like that.

    VG M.

  • 9Michaelon September 12th, 2017 at 10:12 am

    Google's image search: "The selection for the usage rights corresponds to the various license modules of Creative Commons."
    You seduce to the unjustified use of the pictures. In principle, ALL photos listed there are initially protected by copyright and without rights of use for third parties. Only in individual cases can other knowledge be obtained. This platform has no place in the article.

  • 10David Pachalion September 12th, 2017 at 10:42 am

    @ Michael: Your comment does not make sense to me yet. Why do you think a tool like Google Image Search shouldn't show up here when you can use it to find free images too?

  • 11Michaelon September 12th, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    As written. In other words: Because the compilation suggests that everyone could simply use images from the image search (which unfortunately has not only happened often enough since the changeover). With a few exceptions, this is wrong. For the vast majority of the images displayed on Google, there is no right of use for third parties. So it is just not a source of free images.

    Of course, everyone with appropriate search terms may be able to find free photos. For me, Google does not belong here as a platform because the damage to the reader can be greater than the benefit, because there is no indication that if the corresponding search parameters are not observed, a copyright infringement and thus a legitimate warning can and will follow.

    I would have expected at least one clear indication.

  • 12David Pachalion September 12th, 2017 at 13:05

    Thanks, now I understand better what you mean, too.

    So that there are no misunderstandings, I have explicitly added above in the text that only the selection leads to the rights of use to freely usable images. By the way, special search terms are not necessary for this.

  • 13Raphael Boliuson October 6, 2017 at 12:39 am

    I am a web designer and I also offer many graphics on my website for free (CCo license). Here is the link to the page with the free graphics:

  • 14Daniel Loeffleron October 10th, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    May I suggest my world of images:

    Here we explicitly add the right of use. Otherwise Michael is right.

    Since some of our images were used frequently, we introduced the image gallery in the first place.

  • 15Dirk on November 9th, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Good overview, thank you!
    One question: regarding Pixabay it can be read several times on the web that the use of their images is not legally secure. I suspect this also applies to some of the pages mentioned in the comments here. Can you say something about that?

  • 16David Pachalion November 9, 2017 at 11:35 am

    @ Dirk: Who writes that where and for what reason?

  • 17Katrin Leinweberon January 11th, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    Hello and 1k thanks for this overview!

    NOA is mentioned especially for scientific images from NaWi & Technik: Although still in the laboratory stage, see, but in active development :-)

  • 18Free Stock Photos - PLiXSon April 23, 2018 at 6:02 am

    Thank you for the list. At this point I would like to suggest my own website, which only houses images with the CC0 license. If necessary, can this also be added to the list, or otherwise serve in the comment? Thank you very much.

  • 19A. Kazakovon September 27th, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    Really excellent list especially the additional web pages in the comments. I like to use Pixabay myself. Greetings.

  • 20R.W. on October 24th, 2018 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for this list!
    But I found what I was looking for here and can only recommend the site!

    I needed a sprocket icon for a PLC program and didn't want to worry about licensing issues.
    Most of the icons offered there do not even need to be mentioned, which is a great advantage on the small display.

    But deactivate your adblocker, the site has little or no intrusive advertising and you support another free project!

  • 21Dorotheon February 5th, 2019 at 7:45 pm

    Until recently, I was a photo contributor to Pixabay. Always under the premise of offering CC0.

    After Pixabay converted its license into an in-house Pixabay license on January 9th, 2018 (without prior notice) and this is quite vague, I decided to continue to offer my images to CC0 with my own website.

    You can find background images, composings, vintage, lots of PNGs, business images, steampunk, gothic ... birthday cards - in other words, across the board.

    My page already has almost 900 pictures and is filled every day - also with plenty of photos. ;-) I would be very happy about visitors.

    Best regards

  • 22Höpfner Niklauson August 16, 2019 at 9:41 am

    I've started offering my own stock photos for free download.

    Greetings Nik

  • 23pixxafreeon September 18, 2019 at 12:35 pm

    After Pixabay converted its license into its own Pixabay license since January 9th, 2018 (without notice) and it is very vague, I also decided to take my photos with a specific website CC0. At the moment there are over 3000 images available Quer Beet have a look inside
    downloads without registration
    Greetings kai

  • 24Ronny Schneideron October 17th, 2020 at 4:27 pm


    Only pictures you have created yourself are really legally secure.

    There are enough scams on alleged royalty-free images. As long as this is a business model and even stock photos that have been bought appear in legal disputes, I believe that it is better to only use your own images.

    But ultimately everyone has to know that for themselves. In the worst case, however, there are costs in the higher 4-digit range.


  • 25margin on January 11, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    What about texts?

    Pictures, videos and audios are all well and good, but what if you need a text?

    I would like to read stories to children, maybe not necessarily Grimm's fairy tales, which nobody understands and which are quite brutal ... Is there a search engine for that?

  • 26Digital mojoon February 15, 2021 at 2:41 pm

    Hi, thanks for the detailed listing.

    Although I deal with the topic on a regular basis, there were actually still a few image sources that I did not know yet.

What do you think?