Fact Checked

What Are Public Domain Graphics?

Renee Booker
Renee Booker

Intellectual property is the area of the law that addresses and protects creative works such as paintings, books, inventions, and images. Graphics created by an individual may also be protected by intellectual copyright or trademark laws. Copyrighted or trademarked graphics may not be legally copied or used in any way without the permission of the copyright or trademark owner. Public domain graphics, however, are graphics that are not legally protected by any intellectual property laws and, therefore, may be copied or used without permission.

Intellectual property laws have been in existence since the 1700s. Just as the owner of real property, or personal property, has a right to the use and benefit of the property, so does the owner of intellectual property. When a book is copyrighted, or a design trademarked, no one may use or copy the property without prior permission of the owner.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

With the advent of the digital age, a new form of intellectual property came about — graphics. Although graphics have technically been around for centuries, computers made the creation of graphics much more commonplace, which, in turn, called for many graphic artists to seek intellectual property protection for their work. As a result, unless a graphic is considered to be within the public domain graphics, it cannot legally be copied or used without prior permission of the owner.

Public domain is a term that is used to refer to anything that is available for use by the public, or that is not privately owned. When used in conjunction with intellectual property, such as "public domain graphics," it signifies that the work, idea, invention, or design may be freely used or copied by the public. Sometimes, public domain graphics were created to be used by the public, meaning they were never protected by intellectual property laws. In other cases, public domain graphics may have been protected by intellectual property laws at one time, but the copyright or trademark is no longer active.

The significance of a graphic being considered public domain for the average consumer is that he or she is free to copy and use the graphic for any reason. Although many people copy and use graphics without first determining whether or not it is considered public domain, they are actually violating an intellectual property law. If the owner of the graphic chooses to pursue litigation for a violation of the copyright or trademark infringement, the individual can face serious legal and financial consequences.

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Discussion Comments


@nony - That’s a good point. I think that some sites have offered free images from the Library of Congress, which of course is a treasure trove of media and information.

One thing I would like to add is to check if the license restrictions allow you to use the pictures for commercial use or not. It may be that they will only allow you to use the photos for non commercial use.

But like you said, as long as you read the fine print you should be okay; there are many sites online, so if one site doesn’t work for you another one will.


If you decide to use public domain pictures be sure to read the copyright restrictions. Some pictures may allow you use the pictures so long as you cite the source.

There are some really popular Internet sites with encyclopedic collections of images, but read the fine print or the caption at the bottom of the picture. This is where you will find out if there are any stipulations about whether you need to cite the source or not.

I’ve used public domain pictures for articles I’ve written online and in all cases I cited the source, which is a small inconvenience given how much value the pictures added to my articles.


@OeKc05 – My cousin offers public domain photos for free on his website, and he makes his money by allowing companies to place ads on his site. Businesses know that sites giving away things are very popular, so the more traffic a site generates, the more desirable it will be to them as an advertising venue.

Some companies pay just to have their ads listed on such a site. Others pay every time someone clicks on the ads. Either way, public domain websites could easily generate a good bit of money for the owner.

My cousin's site has free wallpaper and free high quality photos. The ads run down the right side of the page and along the bottom, so you can't miss them, and that is the point.


Public domain graphics websites sound too good to be true. If they offer graphics for free, then how do they make their money?

Do people really give away photos and art like this for nothing in return? I can't imagine someone devoting all that time to uploading thousands of images without profiting somehow from it.

I am happy to take advantage of public domain graphics. I'm not complaining at all. I'm just curious about the reason that people might have a site offering them.


@wavy58 – Public domain illustrations are really helpful for people like me who don't have any artistic ability. I like to use them to make greeting cards for my friends.

I have been able to find several cartoon dogs and cats with funny expressions on their faces or in positions that inspire me to come up with a humorous phrase to accompany them. I save a lot of money by making my own birthday and Christmas cards.

I'm pretty good at laying out the design and choosing text, but I can't draw at all. I am so glad that I can find free public domain illustrations online, because otherwise, I'd have to settle for whatever greeting cards my local grocery store has in stock.


I think it's great that there are websites out there that offer public domain images for free. I am a graphic artist, and though I can create text and shapes without help, I often find myself in need of photographs.

Sometimes, a client will need a photo of something that I can't possibly go out and take, like a zebra or a beach scene. That's when public domain images really help me out.

I can download the image for free. I don't have to add any charges to my clients' bill for photography, and they appreciate this.

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