When putting together a newspaper, magazine, broadcast or online/digital site, it’s always safest to create your own material rather than borrowing from elsewhere. Your work might not look as “polished” as a professional magazine photographer’s, but those photographers didn’t learn to take cover-worthy images by dropping-and-dragging other people’s files. There’s no substitute for doing it yourself — and that will make your publication unique and special.
But on rare occasions, there’s a legitimate need to use material that can’t be created in-house. Maybe there’s a disaster in a foreign country that has a unique local impact. Maybe you’re writing a travel story recommending exotic destinations to visit.
For those occasions, a growing number of websites make photos, videos, music and other creative works free for download and republication.
But be aware of several important cautions before you borrow.
Second, many websites make their materials available only to users age 18 and older, so if you’re not of legal age to use the site, look elsewhere.
Third, be a skeptical window-shopper. If material is “too good to be true,” chances are that it is. It’s not difficult for a prankster to upload other people’s work to the web and claim that the material is “free.” Valuable photos of entertainment events taken from exclusive vantage points, like the sidelines of an NFL football game or backstage at the Academy Awards, almost certainly are not “free” and are probably pirated from a copyright-protected site.
Fourth, reusing material created by others can raise ethical issues even when the use is 100% legal. For instance, many news organizations won’t reuse photographs shot by the White House press photographer (see below) even though they’re copyright-free, because the photographer works for the president and isn’t a neutral journalistic observer.
With those cautions, here are some popular sites that offer downloadable images, videos and songs that are available for reuse by the student media if creating your own version just isn’t possible.
Material that’s (honestly!) in the public domain
Creative works made by U.S. government employees as part of their federal employment belong to the public and aren’t protected by copyright. Some of the most content-rich websites include:
Material licensed through Creative Commons
Wikimedia Commons maintains a library of millions of audio and visual files that may be republished in accordance with the owner’s specified license terms through Creative Commons, a voluntary alternative to copyright. Creative Commons allows the creators of original works to give global consent for the redistribution of their work, provided certain licensing terms are met; the most common one is to accurately credit the work. Always read and follow the terms of the applicable license — for instance, some licensors forbid modifying their work, while others freely invite it.
The Google Advanced Image Search feature includes a dropdown menu option (“Usage Rights”) allowing searchers to specify that they want only results tagged with a license permitting reuse.
Sites with their own licensing terms
The granddaddy of them all is YouTube, which has adapted to the reality that amateur filmmakers want to incorporate music into their work by making thousands of audio files available, including both songs and sound effects, some of which require attribution and some of which are unconditionally free (for use within the YouTube platform only).
Many other sites offer a hybrid of completely free downloads along with a subscription plan for “premium content,” but infrequent users often can meet their needs through the free service. (And note: the term “royalty free” is not synonymous with “free.” “Royalty free” is a licensing term that means there are no fees associated with the continued use of an image — but there may well be an up-front purchase price, so it’s unsafe to assume that “royalty free” means “take one.”) Some of the most popular free-content sites include:
The Journalism Education Association’s Digital Media Resources site also offers links that journalism advisers have vetted as reliable.
Page last updated March 10. 2020