Finding Public Domain and Creative Commons Images

CreativeCommonsLogoMany images found online are copyrighted which makes looking for images to use in a course problematic at times.

Finding images or other media online that is properly licensed for use in a course can be as easy as using your favorite search engine. Many search engines offer the option of the searching based on the copyright and the usage rights of the media. Most of these will be covered under the Creative Commons license agreement, which is discussed later in this post. In general this license allows the content to be used in an educational setting with no copyright issues. There is, however, a need to credit images appropriately; this will also be discussed.

Some of the resources covered here include: Google image search, Flickr Commons search, Morguefile, and Bing image.

Table of Contents

A Look at Different Licensing Types

When creating attributions or credit lines it is important to understand the different types of licensing.

Public Domain

If historical images are being used – often found in the Flickr Commons or Wikimedia – they are likely to be public domain. In this instance one does not need to give an attribution. The logo below will often be included in the image description; otherwise it will say something to the effect of “No Rights Reserved,” or “No Known Copyright Restrictions.” Again, this is most common with historical images.

Public DomainCreative Commons Licenses

The most common licensing type for the use and reproduction of images for free is a Creative Commons license. There are several different types of this license that allow for more, or less rights of use and attribution types. It should be noted that this does not imply there is no copyright, there is, but the Creative Commons License allows for use in several different ways.

There are four symbols and terms that are important to understand when giving credit for a creative commons image. There may also be multiple of these per image:

1) The image below is the first item you might see in a Creative Commons license. This is simple attribution only – meaning the only stipulation to use the image is to credit the person who created the content. You are free to edit the work but should indicate changes if there were any.

CC BY Attribute

2) One thing to look out for will be this “ND,” which stands for No Derivatives. If this is present then the media cannot be edited in any way. It must be used as-is and with proper attribution.

CC No Derivatives

3) The “NC” here simply stands for Non-Commercial use only. Any use within the educational setting should fall under this. Much like the first item you can edit the work freely.

CC Non-Commercial

4) “SA,” or Share Alike just means that you can edit the media as you see fit. This is very similar to the Attribution Only license from above with the only difference being if changes are made to the image others are free to use that edited image under the same license.

CC Share Alike

If you have further questions about an image’s licensing there is normally a link attached to the license that will go to a page that goes into much more detail.


Public Domain and Site Generated Attributions

These first few sources either require no attribution line or, they create on for you.

Flickr Commons

An excellent resource for finding historical images is the Flickr Commons search. Flickr Commons is a collection of archives from many different educational institutions across the world and is quite easy to use. To search the commons you must use the search bar in the middle of the page shown below. These images will be labeled “No Known Copyright Restrictions” and will not require attribution for use.


When you find an image to use just click on it and then click on the download icon at the bottom right of the screen.




This service offers royalty free images that are free to use without attribution.             Simply search, click on the image and hit “Download Image”




Creative Commons Licensed Sources

Google Image Search

The process of searching for usable images involves just a step or two more than a standard Google Image Search:

Start a normal image search and then click on “Search tools” right below the search bar.


This will bring up another option bar. Once there, click on “Usage rights” and select “Labeled for noncommercial reuse.” Once this is done the image search will run again with that filter applied.

Google Search

Bing Image Search

The Bing image search is nearly identical to the Google image search.

Start a normal search and then click on “License” just below the search bar and then select “Free to share and use.”

Bing Search


Creative Commons Search

A fairly powerful service is the Creative Commons search utility. With this service one can search various different websites for creative commons licensed images.

On the search page there is the option to search various different websites. Simply enter your search query and then click on the site you wish to search. A good tip for this service is to deselect the “Use for commercial purposes” option, which is directly below the search bar.  Leaving this checked will limit the search results.


Finding the Creative Commons Licensing Information for an Image

Knowing where to look for these license agreements is just as important as knowing what they are. These will be in different locations depending on the service used. However, they will always be around the image somewhere. For example, on the Flickr Commons, the information will be below and to the right of the image.


As this image is in the public domain and supplied by the National Archives this is indicated below the image.

Likewise, with the Wiki Commons the licensing information is below the media:


In general, if an image is licensed under Creative Commons this information will be just below or next to the image.

Writing a Proper Credit Line

This site,, has a very thorough breakdown of how to write correct attribution lines. However, it really comes down to five pieces of information:

  1. Title? Did the work have a name associated with it?
  2. Author? What was the name or online handle of the content creator?
  3. Source? Where did the image come from? (Eg: Flickr, WikiCommons, etc.)
  4. License? What type of Creative Commons license does this fall under?
  5. Were any changed made to the original image?

An example of a good credit is line is below:

Mayon_VolcanoMayon Volcano” by Vencel is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

A couple things to note here: The image name is a link to the original image which also indicates the source. Likewise, there is a link to the actual Creative Commons agreement. Often the link to the agreement is not needed as long as the Creative Commons license is mentioned – in this instance it is the Creative Commons BY (attribution) and SA (share-alike).

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