Free Media: What and Where

[Oliver Laric / 787 Cliparts, made entirely from free clipart found on the internet]

'I’ve kind of come to the point right now where I don’t see any necessity in producing images myself—everything that I would need exists, it’s just about finding it.' – Oliver Laric in interview with Lumen Eclipse

Digital artists today frequently use found and re-appropriated media in their work, and as a result are regularly faced with the question: to steal, or not to steal. I have no intention of discussing the moral and ethical issues surrounding this question, but will instead provide some basic information and resources for finding digital media that is free and legal to remix, re-appropriate, and reuse.

1. Public Domain and Creative Commons

There are two types of media that are of particular interest to the digital scavenger: media in the public domain, and media released under certain Creative Commons licenses.

Items in the public domain are free for anyone to use, for any purpose. They are, by definition, not under copyright. Generally, media enters the public domain because its copyright has expired or because the copyright holder has chosen to relinquish ownership. You can find more information on public domain laws and criteria here: http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that has released a number of licenses which are free to use. These licenses make it easy for copyright owners to define how their media may be shared or reused by others. Creative Commons licenses are made up of one or more of their four license conditions (in order from least- to most-restrictive):

  • Attribution (by)
    You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work - and derivative works based upon it - but only if they give credit the way you request.
  • Share Alike (sa)
    You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.
  • Noncommercial (nc)
    You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work - and derivative works based upon it - but for noncommercial purposes only.
  • No Derivative Works (nd)
    You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.

License descriptions have been copied verbatim from creativecommons.org. Please visit the link for more information regarding Creative Commons licenses.

Public domain and Creative Commons licenses are particularly useful because they are so widespread. However, not all free media on the web falls into these categories. Some sites employ custom licenses that are equally or even more unrestricted than Creative Commons (ex: Morguefile). Read all licenses carefully, and if there is nothing that explicitly allows the sort of use you had in mind, get in touch with the copyright holder. Many times they will be open to letting you use their media, especially if it is for artistic or non-profit purposes.

2. Free-Media Archives

There are millions of media files that are free and legal for anyone to use in their own projects. After you know what to look for (see above) you just need to know where to look. In this section I have compiled some of the better free media resources I have found. They are organized into databases (searchable websites that connect users directly with media) and lists (of additional databases). Where possible, I have included the type of license media on the site falls under: public domain (pd), Creative Commons (cc-by, cc-by-sa), or site-specific.

Databases (general):

Databases (video):

Databases (audio):

Databases (image):

Lists (of databases):

3. Giving Back

A relatively new trend among artists has been to release raw media files, b-roll footage, and even their completed works into the public domain after a project has been completed. This development is a manifestation of the growing free culture movement. The free culture movement is a loosely organized social movement, inspired in part by the rise of open source software, which advocates the free distribution and modification of creative works.

Nina Paley, the creator of Sita Sings the Blues, released the film and the animation source files under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. She explains this decision rather eloquently on the main page of the film's website. In part, she writes:

'You don't need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom. […] There is the question of how I'll get money from all this. My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there's a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction. The old business model of coercion and extortion is failing. New models are emerging, and I'm happy to be part of that. But we're still making this up as we go along. You are free to make money with the free content of Sita Sings the Blues, and you are free to share money with me. People have been making money in Free Software for years; it's time for Free Culture to follow. I look forward to your innovations.'

The folks at Steal This Film have similarly released a sizeable archive of b-roll footage under the same Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License (the film itself is still under copyright). I contacted them to get their perspective on re-use of the film itself, and also got a bit about the b-roll archive:

'Regarding the film itself, you are correct in saying that it is not under any form of alternative license, and it is also correct to say that we have no interest in chasing end-users. Legally speaking there is no formal guarantee, but our discretion is guaranteed by the fact that we have not disposed of distribution rights in a manner which would allow any other party to exercise those rights against our will. Commercial television stations and other industrial users are however a different story - they should pay as there is no reason to subsidize their business model (advertising, pay per view, state subsidy). […] Whilst we do not have a unanimous position on the licensing question (there were five people involved in the core production of Steal This Film 2), the concept behind the archive was to create a store of materials which other producers could exploit, also for commercial projects, provided they agree to give something back to the pool via the use of the Share Alike clause.'

[Good Copy Bad Copy]

I have a lot of respect for the following projects and what their generosity has contributed to the wider creative community:

I've read that Kent Lambert's videos are all in the Public Domain, though he seems a bit focused on his band Roomate at the moment (see: kentlambert.org).

4. Disclaimer

I am not, nor have ever been, a lawyer. As a result, this is not intended as legal advice.

Many sites employ their own custom licenses, and public domain media is often mislabeled. Before using found media in your projects, you should read any licensing information available on the source website. This is particularly important if there is a chance you will be making money from it, directly or indirectly. In the case of potential public domain media, be sure to familiarize yourself with the guidelines in the previously mentioned link. Finally, images or video containing recognizable people or corporate logos can be problematic. Commercial use of such media may in some cases be restricted even if it would otherwise fall into the public domain.

Additional copyright information can be found at benedict.com. If you have any nagging questions please consult a copyright lawyer.

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