Finding copyright-free images in Wikimedia

Posted by Greten on 03 Jan 2012 under Tips

The projects of Wikimedia Foundation such as Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons are excellent source not just of information but also of images. While I personally do not give my full trust to collaborative websites such as those run by Wikimedia Foundation, images found in these websites are way too many and around 99.9% of the time, you can find one or more for a specific purpose: blog, web template design, teaching, creating slide presentation, etc.

Precaution on using images from Wikimedia

However, you need to be careful before you decide to use any images from any of the Wikimedia projects. Not all of them are in public domain, in fact most of them are not in public domain but use one of the Creative Commons licenses. Now, here are are usual problems that a web designer, graphic artist, teacher or anyone who needs an image from Wikimedia may encounter:

  1. The owner of the image parsed a Creative Common license "Attribution", which states that "you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor" and yet, the owner of the image didn't specify the manner of attributing anywhere!
  2. As of the date of the writing of this post, the search function of Wikipedia and other Wikimedia websites organize results in different ways (location, type, subcategories, etc depending on what is being searched) but not based in copyright status.

For problem number 1, one solution is to contact the owner of the image and ask him/her for the specific manner of attribution. This may take as few minutes or for a very long time. The other solution is to simply use images from the public domain. Unfortunately, this brings us to problem number 2. There are way more copyrighted than public domain images.

Looking for copyright-free images

The solution is to include the key phrase "public domain" or "Creative Commons CC0" (that's zero at the end). The phrases must be enclosed in quotes so that the search results will include only those that contain "public domain" will be included  and not those that contain the words "public" and "domain".

public domain imagesThe term Creative Commons CC0 is very much identical to public domain in that you can use the media (picture, music, video, etc) attributed as such, but it is commonly used in countries wherein there is no law that makes it possible for the copyright holder to willingly surrender all copyright claims.

In the method I will discuss, all my use of key phrase "public domain" can be readily replaced by "Creative Commons CC0". My suggestion is to use "public domain" first and then replace it with "Creative Commons CC0" if you could not find what you are looking for. You can do it in two ways:

Using the wiki search function

In Wikimedia Commons, let's say you are looking for public domain picture of a beach, you need to type the following in the search box:

"public domain" beach

You should include the open and close quotes as well as the character space.

It is not advisable to do this in Wikipedia because its internal search function is likely to return articles instead of pictures. However, the pictures in those articles could be public domain. If you have time to spare, then you might want to visit the articles and check the embedded pictures.

Using this method will sometimes provide you with results that are presented in different manner. Some results have thumbnails, some are just text links, some are sorted in groups, and some appears without any grouping. I'm not sure what factors determine the way the results are presented but I can usually find what I'm looking for with this method. If I cannot find the images that I need, then I use Google as discussed in the next subsection.

Using Google

Another way of finding images in Wikimedia websites is to use the Google search engine. Again, using the beach picture example, type the following in Google search box and press enter or click the lens button: "public domain" beach

You still need to include the quotes and the spacing. Notice that there is no character space in the string The reason is that this string tells Google to limit the search to Wikimedia Commons.

This time, you can easily use it to Wikipedia. Just replace the first string in the search keywords with

Using this method, most of the results have titles that start with "File:" (colon included). These are the media files and most of them are images. If searching within Wikipedia, those that without "File:" are either article pages or pages used for administering Wikipedia, but in my experience, they are rarely on top of search results if using this method.

You may also click the "Images" link on the topmost menu of Google to bring you to image search so you can browse the images and see if what you need is already there.

Verifying the copyright status

Almost all of the search results of either Google or Wikimedia's internal search function, using the methods above, are in the public domain. "Almost" because there are still very few copyrighted materials that for some reasons still mention the phrase "public domain" or "Creative Commons CC0".

One case is wherein the copyright holder is so enthusiastic in insisting his or her copyright that s/he feels the need to say something like "this is not in the public domain" in the copyright notice. Another case is when the copyright holder has sketchy understanding of copyright licensing that they will say "Creative Commons CC0" and then you will notice at a latter part of the page that they insist on attribution. Remember that Wikipedia and Wikimedia are sites that "anyone" can edit. Many of them are not experts and thus erratic and contradictory licensing statements do appear. In such cases, err on the conservative side i.e., assume that the work is not in the public domain.

Thus, you need to click the results to see the license of each individual image. You don't need to check them all. Just check what you think are the ones you need. The title and thumbnails should provide you some hints. Upon visiting the image file's individual page (the page where the file is embedded and mentions the resolutions available, date uploaded, licensing, etc), look for any of these tags to confirm their copyright-free status.

For public domain:

wikimedia public domain notice

For Creative Commons CC0:

You might obtain some results wherein the copyright notice are not written in English language. If you do not understand these languages, similar icons/symbols on the left is usually enough to tell you that those image files are indeed in the public domain or can be used without restrictions. Then again, err on the conservative side. If you doubt the public domain status of the image due to unfamiliar language, then don't use it.

Last updated on 29 Apr 2013.

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