It’s a challenge for creative people to find free legal images to use to illustrate their work. Sadly, there are few libraries of Christian images. I wish I could offer an abundance of totally free (no cost, no restrictions) Christian image resources. There are few but they generally offer dated or cheesy images or try to mislead people with questionable “free” offers.
Therefore, I think it’s best to use images from the sources below. You can customize them with Christian symbols or text using Photoshop. The emphasis is on quality photos from general sources that you can remix and re-purpose for your Christian work.
At one time it was difficult to find free images since all the big players like Getty Images, iStock and Shutterstock dominated the market. That has changed and there are millions of high quality images now available for you to use without payment or restrictions.
Before I list some of the best resources, let’s talk briefly about intellectual property rights (IPR). I’m not a lawyer and you should seek one if needed. What I offer here is a general overview of U.S. laws, not specific legal advice.
Know Your Rights
All creative work is subject IPR. Here are a few helpful IPR terms that relate to images.
This does not mean the image is free or free to use any way you wish. It means that rights are restricted and you must pay for the rights you want. They are “Rights Managed” stock images.
For example, you find an image you like. You pay once to use it–no ongoing royalty payment. But you are restricted to how you use the image. Getty Images has a Standard Editorial Rights license, for example, that allows you to use the image worldwide for 15 years. You can use it to illustrate something inside your book probably, but cannot use the image as a cover. That requires a Commercial license and is far more expensive and limited to a certain number of copies.
In almost all cases the image is copyright and you must credit the copyright owner. Generally the license requires you to indicate the source, such as Shutterstock. This is really just a form of advertising for the licensing company, and may not be required.
Besides the big royalty-free image companies mentioned, there are many smaller ones like Dreamstime.com, 123RF.com and Fotolia.com.
Creative Commons License
Creative Commons is confusing to most people. To understand it best, keep in mind it has nothing to do with copyright. They only allow content creators to assign various licenses to copyrighted material they own.
Creative Commons pretends to pronounce what is in the Public Domain (an area that touches copyright), but that’s a falsehood. See below.
Creative Commons allows an image (or other creative work) to be LICENSED by anyone willing to abide by the dictates of the copyright owner. There is no fee, but the licensing provisions can be draconian. See the licenses and their corresponding requirements here.
Perhaps the most tolerable license if the BY license. That means you must offer attribution along with the applicable Creative Commons license. For example, you would give this kind of credit to the content creator: Frank Smith CC BY 2.0. It gives attribution and identifies the type and version of Creative Commons (CC) license. Find their full attribution preferences here.
The worst are the No Derivatives (ND), No Commercial Use (NC), Share-Alike (SA). They are too restrictive for most people to want to use.
- No Derivatives ostensibly means you cannot change the image (like trimming it) or mix it with other images.
- No Commercial means you cannot make money from use of the image. By some interpretations, you can’t use such images on a book cover, for example.
- Share-Alike means, “If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same, similar or a compatible license.” If you include such an image anywhere, you are likely “building upon it,” so you may be obligated to give away your entire book under those same terms? Frankly, no one knows for sure if this is the case since Creative Commons does not offer legal advice.
You can find images with Creative Commons licenses in many places, but many people at Filcker.com use them. Be very careful when using images from that source.
Prudent people should understand there is risk in using anything except a BY image with proper attribution. And that’s what makes Creative Commons licenses a questionable resource.
This means you have total freedom to use an image in any way you wish. The very fact that it’s in the Public Domain means that there are no restrictions of any kind.
As noted, Creative Commons has muddled the meaning of some rights. It has a category called CC0, which is not a license at all. It is just an indication that the content creator has formally dedicated their work to the Public Domain. They have no intellectual property rights of any kind.
Note that other rights may prevail in place of copyright. For example, creative work may be covered by patent or trademark law. Also, some individuals in images have “privacy and publicity rights” in some regions, so you can’t use a photo of them except under specific legal conditions. Check with a lawyer if you have questions about this.
In the U.S., all creative work produced prior to 1923 is now in the Public Domain. Also, there is a huge body of work that was not properly copyrighted, or the copyright expired under previous laws, and it too is in the Public Domain. Also, any images created by the the U.S. Government (but not their contractors) are in the Public Domain.
Some companies and people try to exploit the Public Domain by licensing and charging for images. Is that legal? The matter seems unclear. One thing for sure is that you should look for Public Domain images before paying for one. For example, I was looking for an image of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for a client recently. Getty Images will sell you limited rights for $575. The exact Public Domain image, with no fee or usage restrictions, is available on Wikimedia Commons.
There are images that I call, “Copyright Mutts.” That means you see them all the time in social media and elsewhere, but no one knows if they are copyrighted. The greatest offender is Google Image Search. They have the right to show copyrighted images, but you have no right to use them in any way.
In Google Image Search, you can and should select “Labeled for reuse” and select the corresponding option. Still, this is risky since the image could be mislabeled and Google takes no responsibility for that. Without a documented “parentage,” these images are mutts.
You are subject to a civil lawsuit (not criminal except in rare cases) for using a copyrighted image. Sadly, there are lawyers who do nothing but try to find violators and charge an exorbitant fee to make the allegations go way. If that happens, make the person making the claim shows you proof from the US Copyright Office that the exact image was registered.
You’ll want to check with a lawyer, but I think you’ll find that it’s nearly impossible for anyone to claim money for an unregistered image. One lawyer seems to have made a career out of registering one image and making a career out of suing people for using it, so beware. It seems this lawyer sued someone falsely and had to pay $34,000 for his mistake, and a good reason to get your own lawyer.
No Cost, No Restriction Image Resources
Here are some of the resources for free, quality images. Most have no strings attached and you are free to use them in any way you wish without seeking permission from anyone. No attribution is required in most cases, but you can include it if you wish.
Always record the source of any image you download and the rights. For example, Pixabay has a unique label for each image, such as “education-3100862_1280.” Before saving, I append it to “education-3100862_1280_pb_pd” indicating it is from pixabay and in the Public Domain. The date of download is preserved on my computer.
Perhaps the best site available for images that are free for commercial use and do not require attribution. At this writing, they claim 1.3 million images available. The images offer visual quality and come in four resolutions (from 640 x 426 to 4608 x 3072, for example). They have a growing library of video clips too. Highly recommended. Use different search terms like, “Christian,” “Church,” “Bible,” “Jesus” or similar words to find Christian images quickly.
They offer over 50,000 images that you can use for any purpose, including commercial purposes. These are clearly marked Public Domain images and offer a type and quality of images you won’t see at commercial image sites. As they say, “NGA Images is designed to facilitate learning, enrichment, enjoyment, and exploration.”
This museum offers over 114,000 images in the Public Domain. They have a number of classical religious images available that you can remix to suit your needs. There are also some great maps and some paintings of historical figures.
Since the images are in the Public Domain, you are under no obligation to give attribution. The Getty says, “Please use the following source credit when reproducing an Open Content image: Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program,” but again that is more of an advertisement for them rather than a requirement.
There are millions of images in the LOC, but only a few hundred thousand have been digitized. Most are of historic rather than artistic interest.
There’s a “rights advisory” with each image, and most have no known restrictions. You are free to use those in any way you wish without permission or restriction.
All have low resolution sizes suitable for use on web sites. Many have higher resolution versions suitable for printing that you can also download. However, if you have special high resolution requirements, the LOC will make that copy for a fee especially for you.
Searching the LOC for suitable images is often complex. There is a subset of select LOC images on Flickr.
NASA and NOAA
The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) has over 140,000 images and videos in their library and you are free to use any of them in any way your wish. All government produced intellectual property is in the Public Domain, so there are no restrictions of any kind about how you use.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has images that primarily deal with the sea and with weather. Nevertheless, there are some treasures here. Some images have been contributed to this site by the public, so check copyright status.
By the way, images and videos produced by the all branches of the U.S. military is also in the Public Domain.
Remember, U.S. government contractors can copyright their work, so verify that it is a government work. Also, various U.S. States copyright their intellectual property, so you don’t have the same freedom to use it. Some countries, like the United Kingdom, hold the copyright to everything they produce and it is not available for use unless you get written permission.
This is a honeypot for certain kinds of images. They all relate, in one way or the other, to Wikipedia articles. The benefits of using these images is:
- Wikicommons makes the intellectual property rights status clear for each image. No guessing. If there are restrictions (rare), you can quickly determine them.
- Republication and distribution must be allowed.
- Publication of derivative work must be allowed.
- Commercial use of the work must be allowed.
Thus, you know you can use the images without any overriding IPR issues. These requirements take the bite out of the worst aspects of Creative Commons licenses.
Wikimedia Commons is always a good place look for historic images.
Have you found a good source of Christian images that are available without cost and without restrictions about how they are used? If so, add a link in the Comments section below.