public domain images

Are the images in your print project yours? Do you have the right to use them? Are they public domain or royalty-free? Are they legal to use, or did you just find them somewhere?


If you are new to print design or are  designing your own project for the first time, then the distinction between public domain and royalty-free might not be that clear. But rest assured the distinction is a very important one.

With Google and the internet putting billions of images right within reach, we thought it would be worth taking a little time to review what exactly the difference between public domain and royalty-free images. Most importantly we’d like to show which images designers can use, and some places to get them.


What is a royalty free image?

When we talk about images, royalty-free is all about the right to use images without restriction. If a service lists an image as royalty-free, then this is specifically talking about the copyright and its associated licenses.

It does not mean that you can use the image for free!

That is the key point here. Often a royalty-free image is paid for by a one-time fee. Once you pay this fee, then the purchaser has the right to use the image multiple times in a variety of ways.

Just how you can use an image is determined by its license. That is a fairly involved subject. If you would like to know more, we’d point you to this FAQ page with a lot of good information.

There are many great sites out there for getting great royalty free images for your project. You may already be familiar with some of them. Sites like Shutterstock and IStock.


What is a Public Domain image?

Public Domain images are free and available to use by almost everyone for personal and commercial purposes. Generally speaking, public domain images are one of 3 types.

  1. An image that cannot be copyrighted. This is something like a country’s flag, or a well-known symbol.
  2. Images with expired copyrights. An example might be illustrations from a century old book.
  3. Images with a Creative Commons Zero (CCO) license or something similar.

You’ll notice that I’ve used a lot of words like maybe and generally in this list. That is because, there is a lot of variation on the copyrights and how things are spelled out when it comes to use of an image. Anytime you use an image, it is important to be careful and knowledgeable about where it comes from and what restrictions it may have on its use.


So how can I know if an image is public domain?

This isn’t always as clear as we might like unfortunately. There can be a lot of variation in the licensing and rules controlling an image. Many will say that if you are in doubt, consult a copyright lawyer or just don’t use the image.

This is of course why sites like Shutterstock are so popular. They make it easy to understand the rules regarding an image, and allow designers to focus on their design, not the legal standing of an image.


What about really free images?

Okay, we understand. You’re a student, you are a non-profit, you’re on a tight budget. We know that some of these services can be pricey. Of course, there are plenty of options out there to find images for a low cost or even free.

Some of our favorite sites include: Pixbay, Flickr Commons, and Wikipedia Commons.

Each of these has there own rules and restrictions, so we encourage you to take the time to read through them and be familiar with what you can and can’t do before you just start using images willy-nilly.

We hope this info helps you, and if you have any comments or questions, we’d be happy to talk with you below.





cutpasteandprint Printing, graphic design, binding, and promotional product specialists in Huntingdon Valley, PA. We proudly serve the Bucks and Montgomery County areas with superior quality, great customer service, and a commitment to getting you and your the best possible printed materials. Our services include: Digital Printing, Offset Printing, Graphic Design, Promotional Items, Bindery, and Copying.

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