Is profiting from public domain images allowed?

Antique trucks and cars along the road in MontanaYes. Many great works of art and literature are in the public domain, and there are no restrictions on people using them for free or profiting from them. Just as publishers can sell books containing the works of Shakespeare, companies can sell t-shirts or posters with public domain images on them, and stock photo companies and marketing firms can charge money for their work in collecting and making available public domain images.

In July 2016, photographer Carol M. Highsmith filed a lawsuit against Getty Images and others. Highsmith had released a large collection of her photographs of American life into the public domain, and Getty Images had licensed Highsmith’s public domain photographs to customers as part of their collection of stock photographs. Highsmith was alerted to this situation when she received a letter (Exhibit A of her Complaint) from License Compliance Services on behalf of Getty-affiliated Alamy claiming that Highsmith was infringing copyright by displaying her own photograph on her own website, and demanding payment. Highsmith alleged that Getty had violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but the judge dismissed Highsmith’s lawsuit on the federal claims, apparently agreeing with Getty’s defense that because the photographs were in the public domain, infringement was not possible.

While profiting from public domain images is permitted, individuals or companies should not falsely claim that they own the copyright in a public domain image. Once a work is released into the public domain, it has no copyright. Unfortunately, these false claims, known as copyfraud, have proliferated.

12 thoughts on “Is profiting from public domain images allowed?

  1. Thank you so much for this article. My question is, in the end did Highsmith have to pay Alamy for copyright infringement for displaying her image (which was in the public domain) on her website? Where I am going with this is that I have found images on Wikicommons that are in the Public Domain and under Creative Commons, that I wish to use in a documentary, but are also being licensed on Alamy. Would this give them the right to come after me for infringement? Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the question. Everything in the public domain is free for everyone to use for any purpose. You can collect public domain images from Wikicommons and use them for anything you want without having to pay anyone. Agencies like Alamy have the right to include public domain images in their collections and charge their customers for the work they do in gathering them and providing them in an easy-to-use format. But people are still free to collect those images themselves from other sources (like Wikicommons), and the for-profit photo agencies can’t do anything about it. It was an error for Alamy to issue that invoice to Highsmith, and she didn’t have to pay it. She wanted to go further with her lawsuit and say that Alamy shouldn’t be able to charge for providing public domain images at all, and she lost on that point. But she would not have had to pay Alamy in any case, because she did not get the image from them.

  2. I’m looking for clip art and designs to use on patches, bookmarks and other things I want to hand make and sell. So I’m guessing that a public domain image is something I can use. Thanks.

  3. Great article! I have a specific question.
    I found a photograph of a Nintendo Gameboy here:
    As you can see the photographer has released the image to the public domain However, obviously, the product itself is not. Would I be able to, for example, print a shit with this image without getting in trouble? Nintendo is known to be very strict with this kind of stuff so I’m assuming it’s a no-go, but I wanted to get a second opinion.

    1. You are correct to note the distinction between copyright on the photograph itself and any possible copyright in the object depicted in the photo. Here is an article about the issues involved with taking photos of toys, etc. that may themselves be copyrighted.

  4. So if I were to take public domain images and re-edit them/alter them in digital art collages could I then sell on a website like society 6? It seems like that would be considered ok.

    1. Absolutely. Images that are in the public domain are free for anyone to use for any purpose, including selling art or merchandise using the images, whether they are edited or not.

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