How to Find and Attribute Free Photos for Commercial Use

Many people establishing themselves online assume they have to buy the rights to (or independently produce) every image they use within their content. While it is ideal to present original media, there are plenty of free photos available for commercial use.

While this guide primarily focuses on using free Public Domain and Creative Commons photos, though it will also touch on the prospect of utilizing royalty free image databases.

Using Public Domain Photos for Commercial Use

One can find thousands of Public Domain photos online that are available for commercial use. While an individual copyright holder may apply a Public Domain license to his or her work by choice, Public Domain licenses are automatically applied to:

  • U.S. Government works (with some exceptions)
  • Work for which intellectual property rights have expired
  • Work to which intellectual property rights cannot be applied

Public Domain photos can be used without attribution, which makes them very convenient as a resource. That said, the variety of available Public Domain images is somewhat limited- especially within certain subject areas (which get less government coverage or are not very old), hence we encourage you to consider using Creative Commons images as well.

Because Public Domain rights vary from country to country, be sure that you are familiar with the manner in which Public Domain licenses work in your nation (should you not reside in the United States).

Convenient Public Domain Image Resources

Our favorite sources for Public Domain images (from a convenience standpoint) are:

  • Wikimedia Commons: While not all of the images found through Wikimedia Commons are in the Public Domain, the site offers a wide and varied collection of high quality images.
  • Pixabay: Though many of the images on this site are to be avoided (cheesy, low quality, etc.) some good graphic design can be found by those who are willing to poke around a bit.
  • Public Domain Image: It ain't pretty, but it works.
  • Ditto.
  • .Gov Watch's collection of the best copyright-free photo libraries: The owner of this site curated themed collections of high quality Public Domain photos; this may save you some time should you have trouble finding suitably good Public Domain images elsewhere.

Using Creative Commons Photos for Commercial Use

Most Creative Commons images are available for commercial use; they simply require that you name and link back to the image source, its owner, and the specific type of Creative Commons license applied to the image.  As a common courtesy to image creators, we recommend attributing them right below their images and not at the end of a page (let's be honest, people are likely to miss sources and attribution at the bottom of a page, may not even make it that far, and might mistakenly assume that you created the image yourself).

The manner in which you display your image attribution depends on the platform or format you are using and your personal style. Some prefer to use the official icon created by Creative Commons whereas others are content to use hyperlinked attribution text (e.g. "Owl photo by Simone Smith, CC-BY-2.0").

The one stipulation you have to watch out for is NC, which is an abbreviation for "noncommercial." If you see an image with a license like "CC-BY-NC" or "CC-BY-SA-NC," or anything that contains the letters NC, do not use it in commercial content.

Should you want detailed tips on utilizing Creative Commons images across a broad variety of scenarios, see our guide to the proper use of Creative Commons images.

Convenient Creative Commons Image Resources

Our favorite sources for Creative Commons images are:

  • Flickr's Creative Commons: This section of Flickr enables you to search by specific license type (e.g. just CC-BY, or just CC-BY-ND) and boasts an exhaustive array of gorgeous images (mostly photographs).
  • Wikimedia Commons: Wikipedia Commons offers a broad variety of Creative Commons photographs that, while often modern, also hail from past decades. The resource also offers a broader array of illustrations and diagrams, and has a tool that enables you to easily copy attribution text, should you dislike writing it out yourself.

WordPress Plugins for Accessing and Using Public Domain and Creative Commons Images

Because many online professionals use WordPress as a platform, we want to make sure you are informed about plugins that make it easier to utilize free photos.

There are quite a few WordPress plugins designed for this purpose, however not all work well or provide proper attribution to the original photo owners by default (Flickr - Pick a Picture, for example, only provides image attribution by default and does not add information about the image or its license to its default captions).

We feel the following WordPress plugins provide the most convenience (while also respecting image creators):

  • PhotoDropper: This tool works with your editing interface by enabling you to search for and add Public Domain and Creative Commons images to a page or post without requiring you to leave the page. By far the most convenient, broad, and user-friendly plugin, PhotoDropper asks you at the get-go whether your content is for commercial use, then only presents images with licenses friendly to monetized content.
  • Pixabay Images: This plugin works much like PhotoDropper but is limited to Pixabay images only. One convenient feature of the plugin is that it enables you to filter your search by image type (photo vs. clipart) and photo orientation (portrait vs. landscape).

Using Royalty Free Photos

In addition to using Public Domain and Creative Commons-licensed photos, one might also draw from one of many online royalty free photo resources for commercial use.

What makes these sites different, in many cases, is that instead of using Public Domain or Creative Commons licenses, royalty free stock photo sites have their own stipulations for how photos might be used. In some cases, the stipulations (which vary from simple attribution requirements to a requirement that the image may only be used if altered) are site-wide, in other cases, the stipulations change vary from image to image.

For this reason, we find working with Public Domain and Creative Commons images to be easiest, simply because it spares on the obligation to check and adhere to a wider range of stipulations. That said, royalty free stock photos make for another perfectly legitimate resource.

Convenient Royalty Free Stock Photo Resources

  • Stock.xchng: Owned by Getty Images, stock.xchng offers free photos for commercial use so long as you adhere to their unique image license agreement.
  • Morguefile: This free stock photo site has its own license system and licenses vary from photo to photo, but it is fairly easy to understand each license and the site offers a pleasant browsing experience.