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Writing Resources: Public Domain Silhouette Art

Updated on March 14, 2014

How to Tell if Art is Public Domain or Royalty Free

The simple answer when it comes to determine is you can use a piece of artwork because it is either public domain or royalty free or even both is to do your research. Lawyers will call this due diligence, but what do I know, not being a lawyer and all? Google is a great place to start. Do a search for public domain art. Do not, however, just do an image search and “save as” any images that come up. Instead, visit the pages the artwork is on. See if the artwork is being presented by the original creator or an otherwise reliable source and it is specifically listed as public domain or royalty free. These pages will often typically have a link to their terms of use, if the graphics are royalty free. There are a number of site dedicated to public domain and royalty free art including:

Finding a good “go to” site is a great idea. It helps narrow the search, which is a time saver. As a writer, you need all the time you can get writing rather than worrying about doing something outside your field.

Public Domain and Royalty Free Artwork for Writers

Many writers struggle to find artwork to use for book covers, comic books, and spot art. The reality is that it is actually quite easy to find this work out there. The question really comes down to how much someone is willing to pay. When you are just starting out as a writer and you have something to submit or even publish that you would like to be accompanied by artwork, the cost can be staggering. A simple pin up can run anywhere from $10 to a couple of thousand dollars. There are lots of reasons we see such a big gap, and I hope to talk soon about pricing out an artist, but know that it can be expensive. Of course, expensive is a relative term. From a business perspective, you have not made any money on the project yet and there is no guarantee you will let alone how much you will make. Therefore, every dime you spend and every minute you invest is a risk.

One way that writers are now finding they can benefit from accompanying artwork without paying an arm and a leg is through the use of public domain and/or royalty free art. According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office “A work of authorship is in the ‘public domain’ if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.” This tells us that copyright can fall off over time, but also that some artwork was never eligible for copyright. There are also individuls who openly place their work in the public domain or offer it as royalty free. Now, let me preface all of this by stating that I am not a lawyer—or, as the internet puts it, IANAL. Royalty free artwork often requires giving credit to the original artist whereas public domain does not. Being royalty free, however, you typically do not need to ask permission although there may be limitations to how the work is used. Many firms and artist provide royalty free work as a way of marketing themselves, but they do not allow their work to be used for certain things (obscene, pornographic, hate-inciting, etc.). There is tons of both public domain and royalty free artwork for use out there. With just a little bit of extra time, a graphic editing program, and a little creativity, even writers like me, who can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, can make their own excellent art for their projects.


Creating Art with Royalty Free and Public Domain Artwork

This information is not anything overly special. With a little bit of research, you can dig up these facts on your own. However, I think putting them all into one place is helpful. But, how does it help you? Well, let’s have a look at a sample here. I am going to create a piece of art using public domain and royalty free artwork. I already have an idea in my mind. I really like silhouette art and I want to put some figures together with a cityscape as a backdrop. This should not be overly difficult. I am fortunate enough to have a copy of Adobe Photoshop CS4, which I had to get some time back because of work. So, that will be my editing program.

For the cityscape, I am going to visit SXC.HU, login, and do a search. I come up with this one below. There were a lot to choose from. For the sake of expediency I picked the first decent one that kind of fits what I have in my mind’s eye. This artwork is royalty free, but not public domain. There are stipulations as to how I can and cannot use the work. There is also a bit about accepting responsibility for any possible damages that arise from your use of the work.

Next, I know Polyvore is a great repository of both royalty free and public domain art. The images I am going to look at were provided by WPClipart mainly. I take the time to visit their site and review terms of use. Rather than offering a limited royalty free license, they have provided public domain artwork for anyone to use. I grab a few images including the one to of the girl to the right here.

I add and position the images after going through a few basic steps to help my cityscape match what I have in mind. I’ll give more detail on that later. This certainly isn’t the best image I have turned out over the years, but it did take me about five minutes. Now, a lot of people will wonder if that means they now have a copyrighted image. Ummmm. There is some debate about that. The reality is you cannot copyright something that you do not own or is in public domain. Everything here is. I have heard lawyers on both sides of the fence stating that while you cannot copyright the original images, you can copyright your presentation of them and “no, you can’t.” I have been fortunate enough to avoid court. On the other hand, I haven’t had anyone try to flatter my horrible artistic abilities with the act of plagiarism yet either.

Completed Image

© 2014 Cameron Corniuk


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