Every once in awhile, questions come up about the practical meaning of some of the terms that we use a lot in mixed media art, especially in altered books and collage. You’ll read that images are "royalty free" or sometimes that they are "copyright free". These two things don't happen to be the same at all. Just because someone offers you the use of an image for no fee (royalty free) does not mean that you can do whatever you want with it. Someone may still hold the copyright to that image and may set whatever restrictions he pleases. It’s confusing, because some copyright holders will let you use their image but not sell anything made with it. Others will let you sell an item that contains the image, but you may not resell the image itself to others. And there are lots more variations on this theme.
Basically, bottom line…the copyright holder has the right to set any restrictions he wants. Your best bet, if you are unsure how an image may be used, is to check with the company or individual artist who owns it. Do not think that just because an image is "out there" on the net that you may take it and use it. Same goes for books or artwork that you purchase. You own that copy, not the right to reproduce it and make more unless the owner says so.
In the United States, the government copyright site is the ONLY authority on what is and isn’t true about copyright. Don’t believe all those things you hear about only having to change the design X% and it’s ok to use. According to the government site, only works published before a certain date are considered public domain and only some of those published after are free for use. Notice that I’m not even going to state the date here. You need to read this info for yourself…I am not a lawyer and will not do the research for you. That would be practicing law without a license :-)
Still, there are a number of really good royalty-free and copyright-free sites with images available for your use. I prefer to take my own pictures and even make my own stamps for the most part, but there are times when a vintage drawing has just the right look, plus I also have an extensive collection of antique photos that I use. When you go to download any of the images off these sites that I’m going to list, it is up to you to read the rules and learn what you’re allowed and not allowed to do with them.
NOAA Photo Library
NYPL Digital Gallery
US Government Photos and Graphics
Library of Congress: the commons on Flickr
You’re welcome to leave additional links to image sites in the comments. Remember, everyone is responsible for checking into the rules of each site and no one who leaves suggestions here may be held responsible for any copyright issues.
Image: Public Domain, US Dept of Agriculture
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