Best Search Tools for Royalty Free Images in 2021

Try these search tools (aka search engines) to find royalty-free images. Remember, images are a form of intellectual property. Images have value: they may be copyrighted even if they mistakenly show up in a search for royalty-free images.

Key Concepts: Design; Semiotics

Recommended Strategies for Finding Royalty Free Images

NonCommercial Works

If you’re work is of a noncommercial nature, you can access some royalty free images. That said, while these images may be free, they may also be tied to traditional copyright or Creative Commons licenses with defined usage guidelines.

Commercial Works

if you are engaged in a commercial enterprise, finding rhetorically appropriate, quality images that are royalty free can be extremely challenging. For businesses, it’s strategic to take advantage of online sites that sell and license images, such as Adobe Stock or Getty Images.

Rather than find an image online, consider developing your own photographs. You may take your own photographs or hire a professional photographer and/or designer. However, if you’re on a tight budget there are a number of great search tools you can sort through to find images that permit reuse for commercial purposes.

Why would photographers require you to cite their images?

Images, like words, have value: they are governed in society by conventions such intellectual property law, which is designed to protect the rights of authors and creators (writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . .).

Search Engines for Photographs

CC Search 
Do a keyword search and then filter by license type, public domain, etc.  (Even here: Trust your instincts! Are those Dilbert cartoons really in the public domain?)

Flickr: The Commons
Provides access to some cultural heritage institutions’ images with “no known copyright restrictions.”

Find and download free stock photos – for personal and commercial use.

Google Images 
Search by keyword and then use Tools à Usage Rights à Creative Commons licenses. 

High resolution digital stock photography  – almost all have no restrictions. 

Pixabay sells itself as a free service for free photos, illustrations, vector graphics, and videos: “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 purpose

Indeed, Pixabay has some beautiful images. Yet often inside Pixabay you’ll be redirected to iStock Photos, which has a sales portal for images.

Pictures from Old Books 
More than 3,8000 free images from old books. 

Public Domain Images.  High quality copyright friendly images with no restriction on their use. 

U.S. Government
Most U.S. government creative works such as writing or images are copyright-free.

Wikimedia Commons.  
Use any of the photos, audio, videos, and other media freely.

Searches Creative Commons content on Flickr with resizing tools, photo attribution tool, code generator. Free for basic searching. A small fee to use some of the tools.

Yahoo Images 
Search and then use filters to limit results to certain types of licenses.

Images for Health Sciences

CDC Public Health Image Library  CIC PHIL)
This image collection contains photographs, illustrations, and multimedia files. There is both a general and an advanced search feature.

National Cancer Institute: NCI Visuals Online     
The National Cancer Institute provides an extensive image collection. You can browse, search, and temporarily save images. It includes many anatomical images not related specifically to cancer.

National Human Genome Research Institute
The NHGRI Image Gallery provides imagery related to the genomics research, people, and programs of the institute.

Open access biomedical image search engine from the National Institutes of Health 

Wellcome Collection.
Welcome Collection is a free museum and library that aims to challenge how we all think and feel about health. Search the collections – many items provide free online access. Search the library catalog or images. Licenses are displayed for each image.

Open Audio – Music and More

Audio Archive 
Download or listen to free music and audio – from the Internet Archive.  From Hip Hop mixtapes to sermons to libraries of sound to audio books to  alternative news programming, to Grateful Dead concerts, to Old Time Radio shows, to book and poetry readings, to original music uploaded by our users. Many of these audios and MP3s are available for free download

Creative Commons music releases – some for listening, some in the public domain

“Royalty free download” with attribution for multimedia projects.

Search for samples, CC license

A collaborative database of Creative Commons Licensed sounds. Browse, download, and share sounds.”

Library of Congress Audio Recordings Search 
Collections of audio recordings from Library of Congress

National Jukebox From Library of Congress –
Create playlists of hisotical sound recordings including 10,000 recordings made by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1901 and 1925.


Internet Archive: Moving Image Archive
Provides access to digitized videos and clips, including cartoons, commercials and classic films, many public domain or available via Creative Commons license.

Latest Thinking (open access research videos)
Researchers present short overviews of their recent academic publications – “The academic video… a new form of communication which meets all the demands of academic publishing while being equally attractive to a broader audience.”  Includes links to publications. All videos licensed under CC-BY 4.0 

Life of Vids 
Free videos, clips and loops, no copyright restrictions.

The Public Domain Project 
“Download thousands of historic media files for your creative projects. Completely free & made available by Pond5.”

refseek Educational Video Sites
Guide to the 25 best online resources for finding free educational videos – Most resources on this site are free – and most can be used without registration. 

“Videvo offers free stock videos and motion graphics for use in any project. You may use these video clips free of charge, in both personal and commercial productions. Video clips that carry the Creative Commons 3.0 license must be attributed to the original author.”

Wikimedia Commons 
Free and open-licensed images, sounds, and videos.