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Finding Images: Public Domain Versus Creative Commons

How to find free images online for your academic and personal purposes.


Images can do wonders for term papers, instructional slide presentations and online learning modules. Many freely-available images found on the Internet are under copyright protection and require the author’s permission to be used. There are, however, images available in the public domain and Creative Commons that are copyright-free and can be used for academic purposes. This guide is intended to help you find and identify copyright-free and Creative Commons images. Once you have found your images, double-check for licensing information and make sure they are correctly cited.

Public Domain

Works found in the public domain are ideal for academic purposes. The copyrights on these works have either expired or are waived by the authors. Images found in the public domain can be used freely without seeking the author’s consent. However, it is always advisable to provide proper attribution for future reference. 

Image source: "Public Domain Symbol/Icon" by Yotoen

Creative Commons

If an ideal image isn’t available in the public domain, works found in the Creative Commons can be used, as you long as you adhere to the conditions of use and provide proper attribution to the content creator.

The Creative Commons is a growing digital community where artists and contributors share and grant copyright permission for those seeking to use, adapt, and/or redistribute their creations. There are six core licences (seven, including Public Domain) issued under Creative Commons, covering commercial/non-commercial use, whether or not the original work can be changed, and whether the new distribution may or may not be licensed more narrowly . Regardless of the type of licence, proper attribution to the creator is a must.

The following infographic, by the Royal Society of New Zealand and Creative Commons Aotearoa, explains the six types of licenses. See our Libguide tab Creative Commons Licensing for more information. You can also visit

Image source: "Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand Information Graphics" by Creative Commons Aotearoa is licensed under CC-BY-3.0

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