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What Is Public Domain Clip Art?

Public domain clip art digital images that are free to download and use without needing to ask the original artist’s permission or pay any royalties.
Many icons and emoticons are freely available as public domain clip art.
People cannot take clip art from the public domain and then add their own copyright to the image.
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  • Written By: Angela Farrer
  • Edited By: S. Pike
  • Last Modified Date: 15 December 2014
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Public domain clip art refers to a specific type of digital image that is free to download and use without the need to ask the original artist’s permission or pay any royalty fees. This type of public domain art often includes pictures, illustrations, and small graphics known as icons. The image owners have typically released their work from copyright restrictions or allowed those rules to expire. This kind of open source art is freely available for any users' purposes such as presentations, Web pages, and print advertising.

The practice of making images and graphics freely available for others to use stems from the ideas behind the open source movement. Proponents of copyright-free art believe that images and graphics are improved when they are shared among as many individuals as possible. This type of collaboration places more value on creative quality rather than how much royalty revenue any given clip art image may generate.

Although royalty free images come without any costs, users do have a few rules to follow in terms of fair use. Since a piece of public domain clip art does not have an existing copyright, users can not add their own copyrights to an image after downloading it. This rule ensures the image remains free for anyone else to use as well. It also prevents some users from taking credit for something they did not create.

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Using public domain clip art for business and commercial purposes also has some restrictions. Images that visibly contain copyrighted logos often require written permission from the logo owner before using the images in advertising or on websites meant to generate a profit. Some images depicting people may not be classified as copyright free art unless there is a verifiable record of a signed model release form. Laws concerning fair use clip art may be stricter in some countries and regions, so users should check them first if they have any doubts whether a piece of clip art is entirely in the public domain.

Online resources for public domain clip art are plentiful. Some sites are more careful about adhering to fair use laws, and a high-quality site will usually contain only royalty free images that have been screened to ensure they are completely released from copyrights and do not contain any trademarked material. Social image sharing sites are another source for clip art, though users should exercise a bit more caution before saving images from these sites; often not all material on them is public domain clip art.

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Discuss this Article

umbra21
Post 3

@irontoenail - Well, I do that, I guess, although it's certainly not for the money. A while ago I realized that I had a bunch of old bits of clip art that I had created while practicing with Coral Draw and other programs. I liked the pieces but they weren't really good enough to be put into a portfolio or sold anywhere. You really need a set of images to do that.

So, I decided I would just give them away for free, because I do believe in the open source movement. I made an online clip art gallery and posted them there for a while, slapped a couple of ads on there and that was that.

It actually gets visited quite a lot, to my surprise, but I only make a few cents a week off the ads. That's fine though. I don't really care about the money at all, it's just nice to know that people can use my work and that it might help someone, somewhere.

irontoenail
Post 2

@pastanaga - Well, it's definitely true that there are a lot of people out there doing very sophisticated work with no expectation of payment. But that's not always the case with public domain work. Sometimes people put up free clip art so that they can draw visitors to their site, to either make money from ads, or in order to sell them something else.

Clip art isn't a great way to do that if you are making it yourself, however, since it does take a fair amount of time to make something worth giving away. But there are enough images in the public domain now, that there are plenty of people to aggregate them into websites of public domain images for their own ends.

pastanaga
Post 1

I actually just saw a short documentary on the open source movement and I find the whole concept really wonderful. The fact that there are people out there who will put hours of work into the creation of a tool for others to use freely, without payment, really raises my opinion of humankind as a whole.

And clip art must be particularly difficult to give up, because I know how much love and work goes into any kind of art. Public domain clipart comes from people who are willing to give up something they have slaved over for no compensation at all.

Except, I guess, the feeling that they have contributed to the global village in their own way.

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