How to find and use free images.
Images are probably the type of copyright material most commonly required to illustration presentations and training. As above, options for using copyright images in presentations and training vary according to audience and are limited. One alternative is subscribing to an image bank service such as Alamy or Shutterstock, however it is possible to find images published in the public domain, under Creative Commons licences or the Open Government Licence. This section explores these in more detail.
Public domain materials are not protected by intellectual property laws and are thus considered to belong to the public. Commonly these are works where either copyright has expired, or the copyright owner has deliberately placed the work in the public domain. In the UK, copyright usually lasts until 70 years after the creator’s death. So, for example, the photography of Alfred Stiegliz who died in 1946 is now all in the public domain. Individuals may also choose to place their work in the public domain, and the work of some government institutions, especially in the US, is automatically in the public domain.
If a work is in the public domain, it may be copied and shared, or even altered and used as the basis of an original work, without restriction. You are not required to give attribution to the work (although it is good practice to do so).
A work that is released under a Creative Commons licence is one where the creator has chosen to make their work freely available, with conditions attached to re-use. The different types of Creative Commons licence, ranging from least to most restrictive, are:
The creator of the work has deliberately placed it in the public domain.
Allows you to distribute, alter, adapt, and build upon the work as long as you give credit to the original creator. Works under a CC BY licence can be sold commercially or used as part of a broader commercial work.
Allows you to distribute, alter, adapt, and build upon the work as long as you give credit to the original creator, and as long as the work you create is also released under a CC-BY licence. Works under a CC BY-SA licence can be sold commercially or used as part of a broader commercial work.
Allows you to distribute, alter, adapt, and build upon the work as long as you give credit to the original creator, and as long as you only use it for non-commercial purposes.
Allows you to distribute, alter, adapt, and build upon the work as long as you give credit to the original creator, only use it for non-commercial purposes, and release the resulting work on the same licence.
Allows you to copy and distribute the work and use it for commercial or non-commercial purposes, as long as credit is given to the creator. You may not alter, adapt, or build on the work.
This allows you to copy and distribute the work and use it for non-commercial purposes only, as long as credit is given to the creator. You may not alter, adapt, or build on the work.
Given the number of Creative Commons licences, it’s worth checking that your proposed use is covered under the licence. So for example an unaltered image used to illustrate a slide in a presentation could be used under most versions of the licence, but an image that had been edited, had the colours changed, and had text added to it would need a licence that permitted alteration and adaptation.
Further information about Creative Commons can be found at https://creativecommons.org/
How to find public domain and creative commons images
- Wikimedia Commons: An open collection of some 74 million images that may be used by anyone. Depending on your search terms, you may have a lot of images to look through, but a good chance of finding what you're looking for.
- National Institute for Mental Health Image Library: The National Institute for Mental Health in the US release all images that belong to the Institute into the public domain
- Open Access Medical Images: A list of sources for public domain and Creative Commons medical images curated by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
- Unsplash: a collection of public domain stock images. Not always useful for medical images but potentially useful for other purposes.
- Pixabay: a huge general interest public domain image site
- Public Domain Vectors: a site filled with free to use clipart images and icons released in the public domain. Vector images are usually icons, and easier to modify and resize than standard images.
Page last reviewed: 1 October 2021