In every project, playful remix, and blog post I do I am on the prowl for open licensed images. There’s an ever increasing number of sites where you find these. They are far from equivalent.

There is some kind of profit game out there, byt would guess it’s ad-driven. Thus, Google’s allure is the tail that wags our world.

Last year I took a look at a few of the slimy outfits and practices in public domain imagery, ones like pxhere that repeatedly lift my images from flickr (some are CC BY on flickr) and the slimier MaxPixel which somehow gets away with being a wholesale copy/steal of Pixabay.

A year later I see way more of these fishy “free” image sites. Not all are slimy. In that space are ones that just harvest images from other public domain sites (a lot of them take from Pixabay – a site which provides image credit). They not only take, as public domain means no restrictions, but they drop the attribution in the process and often “share” them under conditions not of really a license as we know it. There is nothing technical illegal about their practice, but to me… it’s covered in slime.

Stay away from slime.

Public Domain Or ?

Not to get too mired in terminology, I might question if a site that offers images “royalty free” or “free for commercial use” or “use with no restrictions” truly is public domain.

The Stanford Copyright & Fair Use site handles the definitions we want:

The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.

I didn’t think a lot of the sites I find and describe below really match up to this. “Free to use” is not the same as the public owning the works. But, hey IANAL.

Things get put into the public domain, either by the expiration of copyright or as an act of the person who created it. These are the ways things enter the public domain

* the copyright has expired
* the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
* the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
* copyright law does not protect this type of work.

If I share an image in Pixabay, it’s license is similar to public domain in what it provides. At one time pixabay used Creative Commons CC0, now it’s just a Pixabay License; like Unsplash there are reasons Pixabay changed from CC0 which are muddy to me. I think it’s to prevent scavengers from harvesting images and selling elsewhere.

Read on to see how unsuccessful this is.

Some details from the Pixabay License:

* 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.

Keep this in mind now what is listed under “What is not allowed”:

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

Below I have examples of several look alike “royalty free” sites that have nabbed Pixabay images and are redistributing them on their platforms. They are clearly doing “what is not allowed. ” What is not often said is that licenses don’t protect you; they enable you to spend a lot of time, money in court litigating against people who do not follow the license. It really keeps the lawyers well stocked with nice clothes and fancy cars.

And often public domain is associated with “institutions” –organizations that own the rights to art, media, and have placed it into the public domain (a good thing!). Recently in a tweet about their new attribution tool, Creative Commons subtly made that same inference– that attribution and describing things licensed under CC0 are acts of being stewarded and granted by institutions.

The grand collection of the Flickr Commons is all from institutions; on the registration page it reads:

The Commons on Flickr is only open to cultural heritage institutions at this time, and not to individuals

But that does rule out individuals from contributing to the public domain; I do. Musicians in the Free Music Archive do.

The grandest irony is that the intent of the original US Copyright Law was to provide that exclusive 14 years of copyright before all works got placed into the public domain. Left alone by media moguls and Sonny Bono et al, the works available to the public would be massive.

Still, the most often way we hear public domain explained is “free to use and you don’t even have to give credit.”

Every time I heard that, a pixel in one of my photo cries.

It All Started With a Search for Toy Kitchens

This ranty post began maybe two weeks ago while looking for an image of a toy kitchen for a BCcampus project web site (it has a kitchen theme).

I have different approaches when image seekig; often I try my own flickr photos first, or go broader on flickr using compfight. I rely often on searches at Pixabay for metaphors, UnSplash if I seek pictures of assorted people. There’s a vast pile of office pictures of people around tables, laptops on wooden tables, or nature scenes with someone standing in the middle.

But usually I go to Google Images. Now before you tell me about that is a problem, I have a search shortcut that returns results for ones Google pegs as Labeled For Reuse (I swear this Gift of Time post is truly a gift.. hey I wrote it!). I have to toss Chris Lott credit for getting me started there.

The results and examples shown in this post all came from one search, it provides a similar range of sources as many other searches I do in Google Images.

My searches work in Chrome by typing in the browser bar gcc TAB the keywords space separated, and press return. My saved search even removes maxpixel sites from results (try it yourself)!

Right away tI notice something odd about the first two results, as well the 3rd and 5th ones they are similar, but…

The second result is from needpix, their about page is pretty clear:

The portal is a library of more than 1.5 million free, or so-called Public Domain Photos and Illustrations.

All photos hosted here are collected only from public domain sources such as:,,,, and others.

All of these pictures and illustrations are freely available under the Creative Commons Zero, or CC0 Creative Commons License.

So they indicate where they they get sources and that they are licensed CC0 (this is problematic as images are NOT licensed CC0). It looks like in the results they are promoting links to their image editor tool and there are also results that go to iStock ($$). So there’s the business model.

At least on needpix when you look at the result I found, it does indicate an attribution credit to “MikesPhotos (” though there is no link to that harvested original.

I prefer going closer to the source, so if I go to Pixabay and enter the first four keywords listed at needpix – toy kitchen home fun, bingo! I get the image original posted by Mike. Always aim to go upstream to the source.

The weirder result and strangely the top result (I don’t feel lucky, cough, WTF Google algorithm) is from a site called Pikist. The only information about the site is the tagline at the top- “Royalty free photos for designers”. No information on licensing. No indication of the sources of the photos. You cannot even get to the bottom of the page because it just loads more results.

But it’s even shadier. Look carefully at the image found first from Needpix and it’s original source at Pixabay.

Image by MikesPhotos from Pixabay 

and compare to the one at Pikist (again, the top rated result according to Google) – which gives no credit to the source nor expresses a reuse license:

The nutella label is a dead giveaway.

As far as I have been able to tell, every image on Pikist is lifted from another public domain / open licensed site, not attributed, and the images are reversed.

This makes for a high slime factor. I give Pikist a 9 on the slime scale.

Also in my search results are ones from, which previously I described its slime factor. I take 20 seconds and pop in some of the pxhere keywords and find the original in Pixabay.

The copied image in pxhere does not give credit to the creator listed in pixabay as HolgersFotografie. They also describe the image as “The image is released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0” but the original is listed under a Pixabay license.

pxhere = 8 on the slime scale.

Then there is this cute one found on another weird site, pxfuel

On this page no credit is given and the only license information is “Free for commercial use”.

By taking the first four keywords listed in pxfuel’s result (danbo, figure, kitchen, house work) and putting them in Pixabay’s search, I land on the original in Pixabay (by Alexas_Photos).

Slime factor again, maybe an 8.

But woah, Neo. that interface on pxfuel looks list like pikist and as well, another one that comes up a lot om Google Image search results, pikrepo. Oh look, and piqsels, another iteration of the same interface, slightly different mountains in background of home page. And pickpik, looks very much the same (no mountains in background).

You can find the same pxfuel image above also on piqsels, on pikrepo, on and pikist (reversed, of course).

It is also found on another second cousin of this site style. What is It is “an open platform for users to share their favorite wallpapers.” Oh wallpapers, a.k.a images lifted from other sites, shared with no real terms of use.

Nothing strange going on here in public domain land. And not even illegal, as for most folks, public domain means do whatever you want with it.

Let’s now climb out of the weirdest types of public domain sites into the more reliable, or maybe less slimy.

Maybe less shady is pixnio – for an example found in the kitchen toy search I can see they provide attribution, linked and clearly terms of use via a Creative Commons CCO license. And a nifty option to search images by color.

Towards the top of the heap, and no slime at all is Wikimedia Commons (example).

It’s clear who the creator is, the reuse license(s), and there are so many images to find if you go directly there. This example is cross posted from an original uploaded to flickr. where I might take that extra upstream step, especially as I have my own home grown tool for plucking attributions and embeds.

Toy kitchen appliances
Toy kitchen appliances flickr photo by quinet shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Besides being amongst the pic* slime above which plucked photos from there, Pixabay has a few images well represented in these (and other result), with a kosher, original image, fully attributed listed fifth in my results. But why is the lifted, unattributed, reversed copy in piklist come 3rd in the results?

And flickr typically is represented well (and as such you get an image from the person who created it, with a creative commons license right on the image page). This is what came into my results

Somebody's toy kitchen
Somebody’s toy kitchen flickr photo by Cuizoo shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

And for just that unexpected bit of small web serendipity, I recognize that user name as Kristin, who is married to my friend and long-time colleague Cole Camplese.

It’s not surprising to see results from pexels too, which is up there with Pixabay and Unsplash for quality open licensed photos, that are attributed and uploaded by the creator, also with a clear link to its license (even if it is branded it’s own rather than offering a Creative Commons one).

They Look Familiar

Looking a the results from pexels it then hits me with a Homer Simpson Doh! sound, especially on seeing the layout of the pexels main page. All those slimier variants that are all names starting with the same letter- pxfuel, pikist, pikrepo, piqsels, pickpik– they have plagiarized the design and feel of pexels (or maybe they all copy the home page look of pixabay).

It’s hard to tell them apart.

But rather than being a collection of images uploaded and attributed to the person who made the images, the slimier sites just lift them wholesale from other sites (and pikist flips them horizontally).

Less Slimy Results

I’m scrolling down and down, getting a bit farther from the keywords, but seeing the same image sites, good ones and slimy. The one variant is a single photo from (I’ve used a few form there before). On this site, the Creative Commons CC-BY license is obvious, and the site’s about page has it’s own “rules: but also indicates most of he images are from the site creator”.

Other reliable public domain sites I have come across in my Google Image searching include Public Domain Pictures, Public Domain Vectors, and Public Domain Review (one of my favorites). For some reason, the search results via Google never bring up results from the Library of Congress, a vast collection.

A good question might be, why am bothering with Google when the Creative Commons Search is out there?

It’s come a long way since the original that was merely a page of forms to other sites. CC Search covers a large number of collections (including flickr and Wikimedia Commons), it has an attribution maker, and well, you know all the result have licenses.

I guess I just don’t seem to get as good a range of results in CC search as my haphazard, slime encrusted method. But maybe I need to circle back and give it a go.

Sorting The Slime From The Divine

I aim to make use of image sites far from the slime. My criteria for what I look for are image collections that provide the Creative Commons elements of attribution, or TASL. That means when you find an image in a collection it includes:

  • Title of Image. A creator of an image usually gives it a name, or at least a file name like IMG5678.JPG
  • Author. The name of the person who created the image, and for the best, a link to their profile. While not required for public domain, why not go beyond the requirements? A non slimy site provides credit.
  • Source. A link to the original, or at least the name of the source.
  • License. Ideally a name and link for the license under which it was shared. Preferably an established one, not the one made up by a site.

I will add one more- Uploaded— the site gathers its materials as uploaded by an individual, ideally the Author, not lifted, copied from other sites.


Completely avoid using

Lifted from other sites, no title (just tags), no credit/author named, no explicit or specific license. No real identified entity that runs the site.

MaxPixel, pxfuel, pikistpikrepo, piqsels, pickpik, wallpaperflare


Skip and find source upstream

Lifted from other sites, maybe a title, credit may be given by name, but not linked. License possible listed, some kind of site description available.

needpix, pxhere, pixnio 


Ok to use with minor qualms

Images are uploaded by the creator, credit given and linked to profile. Attribution encouraged. License is one created by the site. Clear indication of site ownership, purpose.

Pixabay, pexels, UnSplash, Stocksnap, Negative Space


The ones to aim to use the most

Images are uploaded by the creator, credit given and linked to profile. Attribution encouraged. Use of specific, established licenses. Clear indication of site ownership, purpose.

Wikimedia Commons, Flickr (creative commons),, Public Domain PicturesPublic Domain Vectors, Public Domain Review, Library of Congress

I don’t know if this is useful, but this represents how I sort through the results when I am looking widely for images. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, you can find more and interesting niche sites like a list from 99designs or any of the collections/sites included in the Creative Commons Search.

It’s more than just the images you can find, it’s worth supporting the people who share media by being vigilant attributors (not just when a license tells you to do so). Always Be Attributing (and spell checking)

But also be wary of the sites Google might offer. I still cannot fathom how their mighty algorithm can favor sites (or even give them space) who clearly scavenge from more legit sources, ones like MaxPixel, pxfuel, pikistpikrepo, piqsels, pickpik over the sites that house the original images.

Beware of the slime.

Google GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Made with giphy from gif in giphy

Wow, you never know what will come from a simple search for an open licensed image of a toy kitchen.

Featured Image: Pixabay Image by Skitterphoto – this is the original uploaded to Pixabay,. Google seems to think a better result is from the slimy Piqsels site, where the same image was copied, listed, and no credit given to the original nor a reuse license indicated. Google tilts the scale away from creators toward slimers.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


    1. It’s a bit heavy for me on iStock photo ads. And why are the options to attribute photos given to as opposed to the actually person who created the image? This smells fishy.

      As do the prevalence of images that are obvious reversed from originals. Why is this done? Like this one:

      which took me 30 seconds to locate on Wikimedia Commons

      and from there to the original

      This falls into the weird middle ground for me. Others may find differently, but I will not frequent a photo sie that scavenges public domain photos from other sites and leave out the credit to the author.

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