When you are blogging, you absolutely need free images – that you can use legally. When you are podcasting, you need a sound-effect or a piece of music once in a while. And even when you are creating videos, you might from time to time need a snippet of video that you can’t shoot yourself.
If you don’t know what you are doing, you are entering a legal minefield. And if you aren’t careful, you may receive a friendly letter from a lawyer with a DMCA takedown notice. Or worse.
It doesn’t have to be this way – and finding images, free music and sounds, or free video clips you can use for free and without the fear of getting into legal trouble is easier than you think.
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Now, before I start: I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t claim to be. This represents the rules that apply to us online content creators as I understand them. If I got something wrong, please tell me, but don’t eat me.
Later in this post, I will give you a list of sites that allow you to download free images, music, sound, and even video snippets for free that you can use anywhere without breaking any laws.
But first, we have to talk about licenses.
How not to do it:
Let’s say you are creating a podcast and you need some music for your intro.
You probably already have a piece of popular music on repeat in your mind that would be absolutely perfect.
Forget that piece – that’s not going to work.
To be allowed to use this song, you will have to either pay royalties per download of your podcast – or negotiate a contract with the artist. It’s going to be expensive. You won’t be able to afford it. And as a hobbyist podcaster, you probably don’t even know where to start.
So forget about having Taylor Swift sing the intro song for your podcast.
Same goes for free images – an image is either popular, or available for free, or neither. But never both.
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Also, forget all the myths about:
- “I’m not using it commercially, so it’s ok…” – No, it’s not.
- “I only use less than 10 seconds. It’s ok…” – No, it’s not.
- “I’m so small, nobody cares…” – Yes, they do.
- “I’m giving credit to the owner, so it’s ok…” – You can guess the correct answer, right?
Similar rules apply to all other content forms.
What about FAIR USE?
Fair use… the concept creeps up again and again when it comes to using music, movie segments, or images. But very few people actually understand what it means.
Here is a definition by Stanford University:
Fair use is a copyright principle based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism.
However, definition of fair use varies – and is different from country to country. So check the laws in your country as well.
Whether a specific usage of a piece of content is actually fair use when a copyright owner doesn’t think so is usually a case for a judge.
The key terms are commentary and criticism – although there is more to it. See the Stanford University link above again.
Here are some simple examples:
- Running a movie critique channel on Youtube? You are probably fine using segments from James Cameron’s 1997 movie Titanic. That’s critique.
- You probably can also use scenes from the movie in a Youtube video showing that the movie got the sinking of the Titanic totally wrong. That’s commentary.
- Running a movie podcast? You can probably use some lines from the movie to make a point.
- BUT: You still can’t use the theme for your podcast intro.
If you are in doubt whether you can use a piece legally under Fair Use, ask yourself the following question: Do you have the money or power to fight a legal battle with the owner of the copyright?
If not, don’t use it.
Free Content Licenses
Now that we have what you can’t and shouldn’t do out of the way, let’s focus on how you can get free content that you can use totally for free and without any legal trouble.
Today, there are mainly two different licenses under which content creators release their content for free use.
Well, actually there is only one license – as the first option is technically not a license.
The first option is what is called content that is in the public domain. Everything in the property of the public domain can be used for free – and this leads to 1000s of free images, sound, music, video, …
Content starts to be part of the public domain if
- the copyright has expired
- the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
- the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
- copyright law does not protect this type of work.
This is again quoted from Stanford University.
Content that is in the public domain is owned by everyone. Everyone can use it and do with it what he wants. No one, in particular, has the rights to this content. You don’t need to attribute the content to anyone. It’s already your content – just like anybody else’s.
I will give you some sites where you can find content of this type at the end of this post.
Now let’s get to the second option – and that is content under a Creative Commons (CC) license. Ok, this is actually a set of licenses.
There is the CC0 license under which you can publish content that is free for anyone to do almost whatever with. You don’t have to give credit, you don’t have to share derivative works under the same license, you don’t have to pay, and you can use it commercially. Content published under CC0 is similar to content published in the public domain.
And then there are the building blocks for the other licenses.
There is the non-commercial building block – meaning you can not use the piece for profit. There is the share-alike building block which means you have to share any piece of content you create with this piece under the same license. And there is the attribution block that means you have to credit the original creator in your piece of content.
There are more building blocks – a full list can be found here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/
What does this mean for you?
For you as someone looking for content, you are probably looking for content that is under any of the following three licenses:
– Content under Public Domain (ok – not technically a license) or CC0
For the CC licenses you don’t want Share-Alike because then you have to be careful to publish your piece under the same license. And you probably don’t want to use non-commercial, because… you probably want the option to make money, right? And even if you don’t exactly plan on making money – it can still be hard to comply with that.
Content under the above licenses can be changed however you want – which is not the case for other “building blocks” for CC licenses. So you can do whatever you want with the one caveat that you have to credit the original creator in the case of the CC-Attribution license.
Free Images & More: Where can you find content under these licenses?
Finding content under those licenses is easier than you think. Here is an incomplete list of sites with literally millions of content pieces:
1. Free Images and Free Video – Pixabay
Pixabay is a site for photos which you can download and use for free and which are all published under the CC-0 license. Do what you want with it! The following photo comes directly from Pixabay.
Pixabay also has a collection of 4k stock videos. Here is an example of the quality you are getting.
2. Free Images – Unsplash
Unsplash has a smaller library than Pixabay – but the quality is even better. Unsplash gives you the right to do whatever you want with these images. You don’t have to credit Unsplash or the creator. You don’t have to pay. You can use it commercially. It’s just there for you to use.
The only thing you are not allowed to do is to simply scrape the site and replicate their service. That’s something you should be able to live with.
3. Free Soundeffects – Freesound
When you are creating a podcast or videos, at some point you will need to add some soundeffects. Maybe you want to hear the loud ticking of a clock in the background. Or the sound of someone typing on his keyboard.
That’s when you should go to Freesound – a community of users who upload their own samples to the site. It’s a community for uploading sounds and publishing them under a CC license. And it’s huge. Some effects are substandard, but due to shear size of the library, you will find what you need.
4. Free Music and Sound – Youtube Audio Library
Youtube has it’s own audio library – the license doesn’t limit the use to Youtube videos though. Some tracks require attribution, but others do not. You are allowed to monetize.
The tracks and sounds are curated by hand – which leads to them not being exactly plentiful. Still, there are some great tracks in there.
Youtube is a little unclear about the actual license – to be sure that the music or sounds are actually free to use, use only tracks that are available for commercial stuff AND don’t require attribution. Then you are safe.
5. Free Music – Free Music Archive
In my opinion this is hands down the best site for finding free music. Over 125.000 tracks in different genres, all licensed under CC licenses, or in the public domain. You can search by license, genre, and more.
Many tracks are really high quality. You are sure to find the right music for your project. Sometimes the site can be a bit slow – but hey, it’s huge and it’s free.
6. Free Classical Music – Musopen
Musopen is dedicated to classical music. You can download sheet music – and more importantly, you can download recordings that are in the public domain or under a CC license. If you want your video to open with Beethovens 5th – this is the place to go!
Some honorable mentions
There are many more sites that provide you with free to use content. But they aren’t as huge. Here are a few:
- Wowa – Free music site that aims to do for hiqh quality music what Unsplash did for images. The music is good, but currently there are only 20 tracks. But they are free and CC0.
- Pexels – Free images, similar to Pixabay. Also has a section for videos.
- Stock Footage for Free – Free Videoclips. Very high quality, but no 4k.
These are the sites I use most if I need a free piece of content I can use for the content I create. Which sites do you use? Did I forget something important?
Also, if you want to know more about image rights, here is an article that highlights who actually owns your social media images.
Again, I’m not a lawyer – the above represents what I understand of the copyright rules that apply to us online content creators.
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