Let's say I want to release my work into the public domain (at least effectively, as near as is possible), but I don't want companies like Getty and Visual China Group taking my photos, then licensing them to others for money when the end users were perfectly entitled to use them for free. Apparently this is legal - see this article.

What license should I use to achieve this?

Shuttlecocks by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen

This image by Carol Highsmith is in the public domain, but Getty will still let you pay them over £18,000 for a license to put it on some billboards

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    \$\begingroup\$ Consider also asking on Open Source Stack Exchange or Legal Stack Exchange. \$\endgroup\$
    – TRiG
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 12:09

7 Answers 7


Then public domain is not the choice of yours.

Public domain means just that. People can use it for whatever purposes, even without telling who the copyright holder is1.

Consider a permissive license, that requires everyone reproducing the image to name the copyright holder.

Then, people can still sell the photo, but as they have to tell who the copyright holder is, every prospective buyer knows who the copyright holder is, and they can directly contact the copyright holder for a cheaper priced license, let's say $0.

Or, consider a "share alike" license that requires all modifications to have the same license.

Or a "noncommercial" license that prevents commercial use without a special permission from the copyright holder.

(1) strictly speaking, when releasing something as public domain, there may not longer be any copyright holder depending on the jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, releasing something as public domain is just giving permissions do to anything with the work to anyone.

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    \$\begingroup\$ O.K. but to all intents and purposes I do want to release it in the public domain. I don't want people to have to provide my name or a link to the license. I definitely don't want a non-commercial license. The only commercial use I want to prevent is licensing to other people. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkFisher If people don't have to provide a link to the license, how are they going to know they can redistribute the image further? As far as I see it, if I see a random image on the 'net, without any license details, I cannot redistribute it. Thus, from my viewpoint, it is not freely usable. \$\endgroup\$
    – juhist
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 19:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think you can get around having to provide your name and a link to the licence if you're going to licence it at all -- otherwise, how would anyone know what the licence is, or who holds the rights to licence it? I think CC BY-SA would probably be closest to what you want \$\endgroup\$
    – Nate S.
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 19:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkFisher, not linking to the licence is more restrictive than you're probably thinking -- if someone comes across the image and doesn't see any licence or link to you, they're not able to use it at all, unless/until they track that licence down, which can be quite difficult. That's why almost all copyleft licences require that clause. But technically you could do what you're thinking of with a custom licence, as scottbb mentions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nate S.
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 21:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, don't forget that you can release something under more than one licence. So, for example, you could do CC BY-SA for people who are planning to link to you anyway and want to use a standard licence they're comfortable with, plus also a custom licence that would allow them to skip linking to you if they want to. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nate S.
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 21:36

You might consider using the Pixabay site. From that site:

Pixabay is a vibrant community of creatives, sharing copyright free images and videos. All contents are released under the Pixabay License, which makes them safe to use without asking for permission or giving credit to the artist - even for commercial purposes.

As for the Pixabay license, here is the description:

Simplified Pixabay License

Our license empowers creators and protects our community. We want to keep it as simple as possible. Here is an overview of what Pixabay content can and can't be used for.

What is allowed?

✓ All content on Pixabay can be used for free for commercial and noncommercial use across print and digital, except in the cases mentioned in "What is not allowed".

✓ Attribution is not required. Giving credit to the contributor or Pixabay is not necessary but is always appreciated by our community.

✓ You can make modifications to content from Pixabay.

What is not allowed?

This section only applies to image users and not to the appropriate image authors.

✕ Don't redistribute or sell someone else's Pixabay images or videos on other stock or wallpaper platforms.

✕ Don't sell unaltered copies of an image. e.g. sell an exact copy of a stock photo as a poster, print or on a physical product.

✕ Don't portray identifiable people in a bad light or in a way that is offensive.

✕ Don't use images with identifiable brands to create a misleading association with a product or service.

The site Pexels seems to be similar. For the record, I am no connection with Pixabay except having searched for content there.


Simple. Just write your own license, dictating the terms under which people can use or are restricted from selling usage of your photos.

This is very common. Historically, most licenses of intellectual property carried non-generic licensing terms, that were distinct amongst publishers. As the concept of more universal licensing was considered (following from the efforts of the open- and limited-licensing models of software), the idea of graded levels of open licensing became more popular (such as the various CC-x licenses put forth by Lawrence Lessig).

Ultimately, if the existing batch of "do some of what you want but under specific rules" licenses don't satisfy your needs, you'll just have to roll up your sleeves and DIY. But don't be surprised if you get a bit of pushback, because your custom license isn't considered compatible with Open-ish License Model X that the vast majority of users/publishers (or more importantly, their lawyers) have accepted.

: By "do it yourself" or writing your own license, I am speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek. If you really wanted a bespoke license because none of the existing CC or other permissive licenses fit your needs, it should go without saying that you should have an attorney well-versed in IP law draft the license for you, rather than actually drafting oneself. The old saw, "one who acts as their own attorney, has a fool for a client", definitely applies with regards to drafting permissive licenses (unless you happen to be Lawrence Lessig. But then, I doubt you'd be asking this kind of question).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I guess I asked this question hoping that there would be a ready-made solution. It seems like it would be a common use case. I imagine that most people who release their work into the public domain would balk at the idea that it would be legal for somebody to charge others for their work. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 21:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkFisher but that's exactly what the "NC" in CC-NC means—non-commercial. No license that I'm aware of makes the distinction between natural-born person commercial usage vs. corporate/legal-fiction commercial usage. You could certainly create such a license, but again, I think you'd get a lot of pushback, and not a lot of uptake, in such a case. For instance, many individuals (Youtubers, other content-creators) are effectively single-person creators, but they incorporate for liability protection reasons (in the US: "S-corps"). How would you distinguish S-corp individuals from big corp users? \$\endgroup\$
    – scottbb
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 22:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless you are a lawyer well-trained in the complex laws regarding copyrights, I suggest that you do NOT write your own license. It will either not be effective or prohibit anybody from using your photos at all. And you won't have the financial means to fight companies who can afford the best lawyers (or have their own). Whereas an organization such as Creative Commons might be able to fight back. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 14, 2019 at 11:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mzuther - I agree with your comment, but please beware that Creative Commons don't enforce its licenses nor provide help on enforcing them. Their expertise is just about creating good licenses. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pere
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 22:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Writing a license in plain English would be superior to pretending to know legalese; but using an existing license, if you can find one you like, would avoid most pitfalls, and ofcourse hiring a real lawyer is best, but not always worth it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jamin Grey
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 2:56

I think one of the Creative Commons licenses with the NonCommercial clause should do what you want. See https://creativecommons.org/choose/?lang=en where you can choose the features you want for your license.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A non-commercial license would prevent all commercial use. That is very different from just preventing from licensing the image to other people, which is what I want. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 19:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkFisher Actually, not. It would prevent all commercial use under that license. As an author and copyright holder of the work in question, you can choose to also license the work under some different license. For example, a completely commercial one. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 1:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OlegLobachev It's clear to me that Mark Fisher was saying, "A non-commercial license would prevent all commercial use [under that license]" If you want to clarify for others, fine, but "Actually, not." is a rather blunt way to "clarify" a correct statement, IMO, given the context of his comment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jamin Grey
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 2:52

Other answer give good advice on licenses. However, if you want your images to be free and therefore you can't use a very restrictive license, you just need to make stock photos company's service to lose value. If you distribute your image through an easily accessible and easily searchable canal, nobody is going to pay a large amount to Getty to use your photo.

I suggest uploading your photos at least to Wikimedia Commons, with good quality. Anybody presented with a copy (even a thumbnail) of your images would easily find them in Google Images and realize they can get them for free.

However, please notice that there are services related to free works that can be legitimately charged. When you buy a copyrighted book you are paying for the content; when you buy a free domain book you are just paying for the work of editing and printing it. Photos aren't different and stock photos may be offering some valuable service to its clients beyond image copyright.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not convinced this would work. In a lot of cases where Getty sells free images, they are easily otherwise available, but people buy them anyway. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 23:43

Public domain is a legal status of where no copyrights exist, you cannot cause that to happen (w/o dying). **Rights have to be waived or transferred (some rights cannot be transferred).

A CC-0 (zero) license is as close as you can come to legally releasing an image into the public domain. CC-0 is a complete rights waiver, but it will not prevent an entity from sub/re-licensing the work. It also will not prevent someone from making a derivative work from your image and owning copyrights to that. Once it is released with CC-0 license you have absolutely no say about anything that happens after that.

The closest standard license to do what you want is CC-BY-SA (attribution-share alike). All CC licenses (other than CC-0) start with attribution; because for there to be non-standard conditions they have to be traceable back to the originator (the standard being "all rights reserved").

I suppose you can create your own license w/ whatever terms you want, but if you do not make it so that the license is attributable to you then you probably won't have much legal standing to enforce it... you are effectively licensing it as an orphaned work.


** works made for the US government cannot be copyrighted... they are paid for by the public (tax dollars) so they are automatically public domain (but may be otherwise protected/restricted release/classified).

  • \$\begingroup\$ In the case of Carol M. Highsmith and others, by donating the rights of their images to the Library of Congress those works entered the public domain without anyone having to die. Works produced for the federal government, such as those made by members of the public relations departments of the U.S. Armed Forces, are also automatically p.d. Ditto for Ansel Adams' work produced under commission form the Department of the Interior and Dorothea Lange's (and others') work for the Works Progress Administration. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 2:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Michael C, good point about government contracted works... at least in the US. Basically, the creation of the work is paid for with public funds (tax dollars) so the work cannot be copyrighted to an individual entity. In the case of Highsmith and others though, I do not think the donation equals public domain... it is more akin to the CC-0 license. Or she/they may have transferred the rights to the library and then they release them. I.e. there are copyrights attributable to an artist/entity; they're just not reserved. I'll edit my post to include the government works aspect. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 19:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Highsmith assigned/transferred all rights to the LOC for those images that she donated to the LOC, or at least she did prior to December 2015 when she discovered what Getty was doing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 19:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ Michael C, so the LOC owns the copyrights and are releasing the works w/o restriction... not quite the same. FWIW, not all works that can be found at the LOC are in the public domain... loc.gov/rr/print/195_copr.html \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 19:46

Use a standard license

A typical user of stock photos will check out multiple photos. Any new license means another day (or more) to research the implications of the legalese, in particular if they are under a different jurisdiction than the one the license was drawn up in.

Among standard licenses, prefer Creative Commons license]1


  • Cover all practically useful combinations of rights.
  • Are well-known. Many prospective users will either have researched their implications already, or simply rely on the fact that these licenses have never been challenged in court despite being widely used.
  • Have already been checked against legal constraints in most countries.
  • Come with an easily understandable text for everyday use, and a legal text for courts to close all the loopholes.

Do not enforce noncommercial use through the license

This restricts too many uses you'd typically be fine with.

https://freedomdefined.org/Licenses/NC has detailed reasoning.
In a nutshell:

  • Users can't combine your photo in a work with a more liberal license. (This includes using the work on Wikipedia, for example.)
  • The photo cannot be used on sites that use advertising to make up for their operating cost. Or for a small business working their way out of poverty. Or a gazillion of other uses defined as commercial that you'd actually be okay with.
  • You can't fully prevent exploitation anyway. Copyright laws make exceptions for research, learning material, and such, and of course predatory companies are exploiting these exceptions to the extent law allows.

There is a better way to enforce non-exploitation

Just use CC-BY or CC-BY-SA.

  • BY means "name the author". Getty can still require tons of money per photo, but anybody who looks at the catalogue will know where to get the free copy, in particular if you choose an artistic name that is unique enough for a search engine.
  • SA means "share-alike", so if somebody includes your photo in their work, people can take that photo out for their own work even without looking up the original.
    SA is sort-of optional, because BY already gives interested parties the means to find and use your photo anyway.

Note that companies like Getty will still make profit off your photo. Some Getty customers just don't want to risk misresearching a photo and find it cheaper to pay Getty (essentially a guarantee that the usage is okay, and they can sue Getty if they get sued themselves). However, in that case Getty is paid for categorizing photos, checking licenses, and taking the legal risk; a five-digit sum per photo actually isn't that outrageous. (Personally, I still find it too much, but the counterposition isn't totally nonsensical.)


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