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Public Domain Images - What is allowed and what is not?

Public domain images are considered to be free of copyrights. Consequently, such images may be used freely for any application. But that is not true. Find out why in this article.

All images on Pixabay are in the public domain and thus, can be used free of charge for almost any application. But there are still rules to obey, in particular:

  • Do not use public domain images for an illegal purpose.
  • Identifiable people may not appear in a bad light or in a way that they may find offensive, unless they give their consent.
  • Do not suggest endorsement of products, services, etc. by depicted people or organizations. For example: do not use an image of NASA and place it adjacent to your own product in a way that suggests NASA would recommend the product.

In addition to these common sense regulations, there is more to know:

 

Model- and Property Release

Imagine: would you like to see your face in a TV spot without being asked for permission? No?! Therefore, identifiable people must give their consent for public usage of their images. This is meant by the term "Model Release".

Warning exclamation markThe same goes for private property: Would you like to see your private home displayed for example on an advertising column without prior notice? Nope? That's the reason for the so-called "Property Release". The object owner must give permission to use pictures of his/her belongings. But the Property Release also covers special cases, where designs or seemingly public buildings are protected. Examples are designs of new notebooks or mobile phones, as well as the Chrysler Building in New York or the London Eye. If you'd like to use pictures of that, the creators/owners must be asked for permission. Getty Images offers a large and highly useful database for looking up intellectual property release requirements: http://wiki.gettyimages.com/

However, there is a difference between editorial and commercial use. Model- and Property Releases are particularly important for commercial applications. If you are i.e. showing an image on your blog, it is non-commercial, editorial usage. In general, no release is required for such applications. Commercial use is loosely defined as all sorts of businesses, where you are actually selling something, or if you use images for advertising purposes. Take particularly care, when it comes to huge quantities, e.g. if you were to create an advertisement in a famous magazine or if you were to design a new iPhone cover.

Conclusion: It all may seem terribly complicated or risky, but actually, it isn't. Simply put yourself in the position of a depicted person or in the position of an owner or designer, respectively: Would you approve of the intended application without being asked? That is the question you should always ask yourself before using a public domain image without release.

 

So what is public domain anyway, if I still have to ask for permission?

Green check markUnderstand "public domain" as the permission to freely use an image without asking permission from the photographer or the illustrator. Thus, the creator of the work will not sue you for violating his/her copyrights. The creator, however, is not responsible for the content of the picture. It is your responsibility to make sure, displaying the image does not violate any other law. That is the essence of public domain images.

, April 23, 2012  

Comments

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access2010  13 days ago
Hi Simon, can I download and resize/modify Pixabay photo and custom frame for sale? Thanks for your time!
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Simon  03/04/2014
No problem :-) And yes, you may use/modify such patterns in any way you like - no restrictions apply.
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thefreedomofstyle  03/04/2014
I just have one more question - so sorry! What about abstract patterns - can I use or modify them? Thanks so much. Just want to do the right thing :) Cheers.
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Simon  03/04/2014
@thefreedomofstyle: Unfortunately, there's no way to give a 100% right/safe answer based on this information. The problem is that the stairs *might* be on private property and thus could get you in trouble - theoretically. The same goes for the church window. It's probably best to ask the image author via Pixabay. I hope he/she can give you this answer!
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thefreedomofstyle  03/04/2014
Dear Simon,

Thank you for reading my questions. I would like to use pictures of nature to make digital printed clothing for sale (like sunsets, flowers, mountains/waterfalls etc). I also came across a picture of a stained glass window inside an unidentifiable church, or another set of unidentifiable stairs which made a fibonacci pattern. There's no person, or identifiable property in these designs - am I allowed to use them to make/sell clothing?

I did see the question below about cross-stitch patterns, which answered the question about nature images. I just thought I would ask about any potential model and property releases about the building images.

Thanks very much for your assistance. Cheers! :)
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Simon  01/29/2014
That's a really important question - and, at the same time, it's not that clear at all, because there are so many objects/buildings in the world and rules may change from time to time. It's actually not a problem for Pixabay images only. That's a general problem for all images.

gettyimages offers the largest database for looking up intellectual property release requierments: http://wiki.gettyimages.com/

I'll include this link in the blog post above.
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travede  01/29/2014
I want to use pixabay photos on my Instagram and Facebook accounts which I use for my business. I mostly need photos of tourist buildings. So I have the following question:

How do I know which building requires Property Release? You mentioned that London Eye would need one, is it because it is managed by company rather than some city authorities?
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Traprock  01/23/2014
Thank you Simon. :)
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Simon  01/23/2014
Attribution is never required for Pixabay's images. They are all released under CC0 as public domain.
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Traprock  01/23/2014
I have/had the same questions as success88. I am wanting to create ebook covers, small infographics, slideshows etc for selling private label rights content. From all that I have read and the post information above, my understanding is that I can use the images, but not in a defamatory way. My intent is for general purpose, rated "G" content.

Therefore, I am correct in saying I do not require links, or link credit back to every image?
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