The British Library posts more than a million copyright-free images on flickr

welcome to earth
welcome to earth

If you use other people’s copyrighted material in your video contest entries, you’re going to get disqualified.  So I’m always on the lookout for archives of copyright-free and royalty-free music and graphics.  Well this week I hit the jackpot because the British Library has just posted a set of more than one million public domain images to their flickr account.  All of the artwork was scanned from books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and the library is actively encouraging people to use and remix these works.  Weird clip art and old-fashioned images would cost a lot to license through sites like istockphoto so this is a really great resource.  Because this material is all on the library’s flickr account, the search options aren’t very sophisticated.  But if you search their photostream you might get lucky.  You can even search for images from specific classic novels.  For instance, here’s one drawing that came up when I searched for “David Copperfield.”

Barkis is willin' to let you use this image for free
Barkis is willin’ to let you use this image for free

It’s young master Davey calling on good ole’ Barkis’ death bed.  How fun!  Now just remember, if you do use one of these images in a video contest entry, be sure to let the judges know where it came from and tell them that the artwork is in the public domain and that the scans are 100% copyright and royalty free.

How to get iStockPhoto images for FREE

I used to love the  If you needed a stock image you could look through their massive catalog, find just the right photo or illustration and then pay a few bucks to license it.  I used to use istockphoto images all the time in my video contest entries (they make great green screen backgrounds) but last year I noticed they had jacked up their prices to ridiculous levels.  Let me give you an example; say you’re working on a video for a contest about alternative energy sources and you need to include shot of a nuclear power plant.  You check iStockPhoto and find the perfect shot; but oh man, look at those prices!

The Extra-Small version is $19.00!  I don’t want to sound like an old fogey but back in my day (2009) I could buy an image license on iStockPhoto for just a few bucks.  $53 is a great price for a photo if your project is guaranteed make a profit.  But what if you’re doing a job on spec or working on a video contest entry?  Wouldn’t it be great if you could download a clean, watermark-free version of an IstockPhoto image to use in your spec projects?  If you win or make a sale, you can just go back and pay the licensing fee.  But if you don’t make any money then hey, no harm, no foul.

Well….there is a way to do that.  Actually this trick works on images from any photo licensing site.  First, find the image you want to use and right-click on it to download a copy.  It will have a watermark on it but that doesn’t matter.  Next, head to Google and click the Images option.  You’ll notice that the search bar now has a little camera in it:

Click on the camera.  Two options will come up.  Chose “Upload an Image.”  When you’re prompted, upload the copy of the iStockPhoto you just stole downloaded from the site and hit the search button.  Google will take the image and scan the entire freaking Internet looking for similar images.  The results will look like this:

Google will list every website that used the image you searched for.  But the search isn’t 100% precise so it also includes copies of the photo that do not have the istockphoto watermark.  So if someone, somewhere has paid the licensing fee and posted the image online, you can see it…and download a copy for yourself.  (News sites seem to be the best source of stock images)  This trick won’t work for every photo or illustration and you may not be able to find a High Quality version of the image you want.  As you can see from those search results, I was able to find this 600 x 399px copy of the Nuclear Plant photo.  An image of that size would look good but not great in an HD video.

So it may not be perfect but at least it’s free.  This trick may seem pretty handy but there is a problem with it; the process I just described is sort of AGAINST THE LAW.  You’re violating an author’s copyrights and using their work to try and make money.  That’s not only illegal, it’s sort of a dick move.  If you put an iStockPhoto in one of your video contest entries and you lose, no one is going to come after you.  But even if you don’t win, you are screwing the person who created that image a little bit.  The guy who took that photo of the Nuclear Plant is a professional photographer and he went out of his way to stage and take this shot.  He was totally ok with you using his work however you wanted as long as you kicked him a couple bucks for his effort.  So try not to abuse this little trick, ok you cheap bastard?  And if your project makes money, pay the damn licensing fee!  In fact, if you want to err on the side of caution, just pay the fee upfront so you don’t have to worry about it.  There are some video contest sites that (falsely) claim that you transfer all copyrights to your videos as soon as you submit them.  That’s complete B.S. and not at all legal but those contest sites are going to want you to play by their rules.  So if you submit a video that includes unlicensed elements you might wind up blowing your chance to make a sale.

And now an ironic disclaimer:  Under section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, an allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, education and research.  So if you use an iStockPhoto in a video, that’s copyright infringement.  But if I use iStockPhotos in an article about the site I’m protected by the first amendment.