Many PhD researchers have spent at least one sleepless night worrying about copyright infringement. Until recently it was no big deal, as your thesis would be tucked away in a university library where nobody would ever see it. Now most theses are made freely available online through institutional repositories and in the UK through the British Library’s EthOS database. So your thesis is now considered ‘published’. If you’re working on a monograph, you’ve probably discovered that the author is responsible for copyright.
Trying to obtain permissions can be an unwelcome (and often costly) distraction for PhD candidates and authors approaching submission. If you want to find out more about copyright law (and it’s important that you’re aware of it), I recommend this excellent guide. In this post I’ve pulled together some of the best online image libraries that make their content available free of charge for scholarly use – you can use most of them in your thesis, monograph, or even on your blog. You’ll need to carefully check the details on each site, but generally the images can be used for non-commercial purposes.
The New York Public Library
The NYPL database now includes almost 1m images, many of which are in the public domain. Guidance is provided as to what you’re able to do with the content. There are hundreds of categories available, from Bathing Beauties, through to Parrots. Something for everyone.
The British Library
The British Library uses Flickr to make over 1m public domain images available. The idea is to encourage scholars to explore the collections and contribute to our collective understanding of them. It’s quite difficult to search these specific images; instead you need to browse through albums. The advantage of browsing, though, is that you’ll encounter all sorts of wonderfully unexpected material.
The Library of Congress
I’m not sure how many images are held by the Library of Congress database, but it’s a very good way of losing an entire afternoon. Amongst many other categories, there are collections dedicated to the Wright Brothers’ early flights, baseball cards, and Roger Fenton’s photographs from the frontline of the Crimean War.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Even if you can’t afford a weekend in New York, it is at least now possible to browse more than 400,000 images from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many are available for reuse through the Open Access for Scholarly Content scheme, but you need to check the guidance notes.
Anyone can contribute to the vast Wikimedia Commons of more than 25,000,000 images. They can be reproduced under a Creative Commons license, the terms of which vary according to the contributor. In some cases you need only include an attribution, in others you’re obliged to link to a copy of the license. Full details are available for each image.
You might think of Flickr as a repository for holiday snaps, but it also now includes some useful research material. For some reason the advanced search isn’t easily accessible, but from here you can refine your results to include only images available for reuse through a Creative Commons license.
Please let me know in the comments if you have any other good examples.