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Taking Stock: Web Photos for Free

Tom Arah investigates the best way of finding free and legal photographs on the web.



Last month I looked at online sharing sites and how the web is expanding the audience that photographers can reach with their images. This month I’m going to look at web-based photos from the opposite perspective and show you the best way to find images for your creative projects – for free.

At first sight the answer might seem obvious. Simply type what you’re looking for into the search page at, click the Search button, and in less than a second you will be looking at a page of 20 preview thumbnails, with dozens more only clicks away. Click on a thumbnail that catches your eye and you are taken to a generated framed page with a header area across the top giving details of the image size and below it a frame showing the image in situ on its original page. Once you’ve picked your image, simply right-click and select your browser’s Save To command.

It’s a simple and successful recipe that Yahoo has copied so closely with its own alternative,, that it’s difficult to tell the two apart. By comparison the image search at Microsoft’s Windows is very different – and superior in almost all respects thanks to its cleaner, more modern interface with its emphasis on visual selection. In particular the clutter of file information is removed so that you can concentrate on the thumbnails, calling up details and a larger preview of those images you are interested in with a simple mouseover. Also, rather than limiting pages to twenty thumbnails at a time,’s image search keeps downloading them so that as you scroll, or downscale the customizable thumbnail size, more appear. Best of all, when you click through to view the original image in situ, presents a framed side panel of thumbnails so that you don’t have to keep backtracking to view multiple options.

windows live image search

Windows reinvents web-wide image searching.

Whichever of the big-name services you use, your first reaction is likely to be excitement – the promise of free and instant access to any image you could possibly imagine is naturally attractive. But while that vision remains mouth-watering, reality soon intrudes. To begin with, there’s the quality of the search. Google claims to offer the most comprehensive search on the web, but its sheer size brings its own problems. A search on a generic term such as “doctor” for example came back with 871,000 images! You can’t possibly wade through that number separating the wheat from the chaff – and it’s not easy for the search engines either working as they do on a very limited number of parameters such as file name, ALT description and surrounding text. Again for the “doctor” search for example, Google’s top twenty images included three images of anti- spyware software, two of “the frog doctor” at work, and one each of a scantily-clad Carry On nurse and of a teenager killed on a boot camp.

It’s not just the search quality which is questionable, even more important is the image quality. Any self-respecting web designer is trying to keep their pages’ bandwidth requirements to an absolute minimum which means small, size-for-size onscreen images that have been heavily compressed either as restricted palette GIFs or as lossy JPEGs. As such you can immediately forget about using the vast majority of the images that your image search returns. At 200 dpi print resolution for example even a comparatively large 640 x 480 screen image would be limited to around 3”x 2” on paper.

google image search

Currently the quality of both search and end images is poor.

Ultimately the poor search and image quality of web-wide search engines are inevitable and inherent. Hardly surprising when you remember that the images were never intended to be accessed in this way and were never intended for re-use. More importantly of course they are not available for re-use – it’s not just slightly underhand, it’s completely illegal. The image search at currently makes no mention of this show-stopping fact, while Google and Yahoo hide their disclaimer away both literally (most users will never notice it) and semantically – “Image may be scaled down and subject to copyright “ (my italics).

Legally-speaking this is true, but it’s also misleading. All work on the web is accessible to all but that does not put it in the public domain and make it available to do with what you want. Nor does the fact that the author has failed to put a copyright notice on the page mean anything. All work is automatically copyrighted unless the author explicitly gives up their rights. In other words it would be much more accurate to warn: “the odd image may be provided on a public domain basis, but it’s absolutely your responsibility to find out.” Or how about: “YOU CAN LOOK, BUT DON’T TOUCH!”

While web-wide image searching looks ideal at first sight, it fails spectacularly in practice – the search quality is bad, most of the images are appalling and you aren’t allowed to use them anyway. Of course theoretically you could always contact the original author about rights if you do come across a usable image and the quirky search results can work as source of creative inspiration (I know let’s build our advertising campaign around a frog doctor!). For most designers though such image searching is more of a threat than a promise – and you might well want to add entries to your site’s robots.txt file to prevent the search engines’ image search bots from indexing your GIFs and JPEGs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As we saw last month, many photographers are turning to the web as a way of giving their work maximum exposure. They are also uploading original files rather than embedded scaled-down versions which immediately addresses the issue of image quality as typical modern megapixel digital camera images can be output at full screen even on high-resolution displays and at very reasonable sizes in print. Moreover with most photo sharing sites now offering serious tagging capabilities designed to help the photographer to find an audience for their work, the quality of searching is in a different league too.

An interesting example of a modern site designed specifically for high-quality image downloading is Visit the home page and it’s unclear at first whether you’ve come to a stock photography or photo community site. In fact it’s a cross between the two with members uploading and sharing their own images while owners ZNET have licensed other images from stock providers. However there’s a major limitation. Yes you are licensed to download images – but only for your own use via the Webshots Desktop application which lets you create slideshows, photo-based screen savers and wallpaper and send very basic photo messages and eCards. For many photographers this might be all that they want to do with images, enjoying others’ photos for their own sake, but it’s not much good for the designer.

It’s becoming clear that this is working the wrong way around. Rather than finding the image and then finding out whether you can use it as you want, the legal question needs to be addressed first. The ideal here is works in the public domain for which there are no copyright laws restricting their use by the public at large. So what makes something public domain? The underlying principle is relatively straightforward: essentially a work becomes public domain if it is not eligible for copyright or where copyright has lapsed or been relinquished. Under US law, for example, works by an agency of the US Government are public domain at the moment of creation which explains why the treasure trove of NASA photographs is available for free re-use (

nasa images

The amazing NASA images are in the public domain.

In practice of course it’s rarely as simple as this. Read the fine-print for example, and while NASA encourages use for educational and informational purposes, for commercial use you must be careful to avoid implying endorsement and you need to obtain the permission of any identifiable person. Much more fundamentally, the whole issue of when copyright lapses is fraught with complexity. Again taking the US as an example the length of protection varies depending on whether the work was published, whether it was anonymous, whether it was published in the US, whether it had a copyright notice, when it was published, whether it was “made for hire”, whether it was published in Bhutan and so on. And of course every country has its own equally arcane set of laws.

At least it’s not the complete anarchy that it once was, when a copyrighted work in one country was fair game in another, as over 160 countries have signed up to the Berne Convention to protect the rights of authors of literary and artistic works. The convention provides a lowest common denominator copyright period of 50 years after the death of the author for most works and 25 years after the date of creation for photographs which all signatory countries both abide by and enforce. Crucially though, local laws override those in the treaty so that, for example, non-artistic photographs in Italy are protected for 20 years whereas artistic photos are protected for 70. No doubt exactly where you draw the line between the two will keep m’ learned friends happy and rich.

It’s clear that this whole area of rights, both global and local, is a minefield and, unless you happen to be an expert international copyright lawyer-cum-designer, it’s way beyond the competence of the average user just looking for a photo. Again we’ve got things the wrong way around. It’s simply not practical for an end user to determine whether an image is available for use; it makes much more sense to pass the responsibility to the owner of the images to indicate whether they are in the public domain. Once that’s established, the end user knows where they stand and where they should be looking.

So where can you find content that you are expressly permitted to use? An excellent starting place is Wikipedia (, not least because the majority of images on the site are provided under the GNU Free Documentation License (GNU FDL) which allows free usage so long as derivative works are provided under the same license. More specifically, Wikipedia provides a page listing public domain image resources. The range is eclectic including sites dedicated to Brazilian postcards, sketches from Punch and even Belgian nightclubbers – particularly surprising as, based on copyright lapsing, there’s naturally a strong bias towards historical images.

Such historical images might occasionally be useful, but it’s relatively rare that you’ll want to include a photo of a Civil War general or a daguerreotype. Much more useful are the links to collections of contemporary photos where the photographer has explicitly waived their copyright (often known as “ copyleft”). That is exactly what Jon Sullivan has done at, for example, where he has posted thousands of his own high-quality, high-impact images into the public domain. Here you can re-use all the images, including commercially, alter them as you see fit, and you don’t even need to credit the author - though most users will add a "Photo courtesy" credit. As Jon puts it, “the pictures are free for you to use and you should feel good about doing so.”

Some photographers generously provide their images for re-use.

This is very generous, but most image providers aren’t quite so public-spirited. While most photographers want others to see and admire their work, for example, and a large proportion will be happy for this to extend beyond the boundaries of their photo sharing site, most users will only do so if they are going to be credited – otherwise you’re just being ripped off. And when it comes to such repurposing, while you might be happy for your work to be altered, you might well not. And if someone is going to use your work commercially most people would probably think that their work should be rewarded too.

In the real world then there’s not just a straight choice between all rights reserved and public domain, but rather a range of options. This is another layer of legal complexity and another major hurdle to overcome before the full potential of the web as an image source can be realized. However, it’s an obstacle that is being comprehensively tackled by the Creative Commons initiative ( This non-profit organization was created “with the aim of establishing a fair middle way between the extremes of copyright-control, and the uncontrolled exploitation, of intellectual property”.

What this comes down to in practice is a simplified set of six licenses that answer most authors’ needs by covering the four main areas of concern: attribution, commercial use, derivative use and future re-use. With the Attribution- NoDerivs license for example, end users are free to copy and distribute only verbatim copies of your work and must credit you. Alternatively, with the Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike license the end user must credit you, can’t use your work commercially unless they reach a separate agreement with you and any derivative works must be distributed under the same license.

creative commons

The Creative Commons licenses help owners pick a way through the rights jungle.

Choosing the license that best suits you is simple enough, but you’ve then got to indicate each image’s status. Currently this involves adding some code to your pages that adds a Creative Commons “some rights reserved” button that links through to the URL of the human readable license and, from there, through to the lawyer-readable version. Clearly that’s a chore when you’re dealing with dozens or hundreds of images but it’s relatively simple to automate. If you’re a member of the photo sharing site, for example, you can batch process files and set a default license setting for future uploads and the resulting pages are marked accordingly.

Creative Commons licensing is straightforward from the author perspective, but how can the end user then find images that match both their and the owners’ requirements? Using the search facility on the Creative Commons site you can simply type in your search query and then select either of the two check boxes below to find works that you “can use even for commercial purposes” and/or works you “can modify, adapt or build upon”. Choose either Google or Yahoo on which to base your search and hit OK and you’ll be presented only with those pages that include links to the appropriate creative commons licenses.

This might sound exactly what we’re looking for – a web-wide image search that takes account of owners’ rights and wishes. Sadly in practice for image searching it’s just about useless. To begin with, as the license is associated with the containing webpage rather than the image itself, you aren’t presented with visual thumbnails but with snippets of web text. In addition, pages with images are bundled in with those containing music, text, video and so on with no clear indication as to which is which. To top it all, you’ll only be shown one page from any site such as, no matter how many relevant images they contain.

Thankfully there are alternative ways of finding licensed images that match your requirements. In terms of both numbers and quality the best launch pad is Flickr’s dedicated Creative Commons page. Here you are presented with a list of the six main attribution-based Creative Commons licenses and the ability to search within all images falling into the relevant category (currently around 2.5 million images across the three commercial categories and around 9 million across the three non-commercial). Of course the majority of resulting images are non-professional, but generally the quality is surprisingly high.

Perhaps the clearest sign of things to come is the license-aware image search provided at Sadly this doesn’t have access to the licensing information in Flickr’s database so it’s pool is more limited with 150,000 Creative Commons, Public Domain, GNU FDL and various other “ copyleft” images at the time of writing. However it makes up for this by providing efficient, visual thumbnail-based searching across a whole host of free web image resources. The downside is the inability to limit your search to those images which can be re-used commercially or derivatively so, where this is relevant, you’ll have to check that each image fits the bill. And, wherever you source your images, you are also responsible for making sure that they don’t fall foul of other non-copyright related laws - the Yotophoto FAQ is very useful here in highlighting what you need to be aware of in terms of people, places and things.


Yotophoto lets you search for images that you can freely and legitimately use in your projects.

As its home page says, “ Yotophoto is the first internet search engine for finding free-to-use photographs and images”. It certainly won’t be the last. With the rapid spread of Flickr-style photo sharing sites and Creative Commons licensing and, crucially, the ability to embed and read CC licensing information as metadata within the image file itself – everything is in place to see this field explode. In fact it shouldn’t be long before you can use the big-name images searches offered by the likes of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to instantly find appropriate, high quality, free-to-use original images from a truly global, universal archive.

What’s more, by clicking a few check boxes to indicate whether your intended project is commercial or derivative, and of course crediting the originator, you’ll be able to do so with a clear conscience. Especially if you’re letting your own photos be used under the same terms.

Tom Arah

June 2006

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