Posted August 18th, 2009

Most government documents (including images) are in the public domain, that is, they are free to be used by the public. For example, here at PhotoSource International, we often get offers for “how-to” pamphlets or reports costing $5 to $25, on subjects ranging from gardening to aerospace; or posters announcing new tax or minimum wage announcements. It turns out these are government documents that have been re-packed by entrepreneurs and put out for sale to the public.

Stock photo agencies and independent photographers can do something similar.

In my book, “,” on pages 208 & 209 I write about the photographer/entrepreneur, Tom Carroll, who ‘sold’ a “Public Domain” image to DRS Technologies for their annual report, for $875.
A distinction to note is that Tom Carroll did not “sell” the image; he found the image for the market and charged a “research fee’.

Why are documents and government-owned images free? When you work for the U.S. government, whether you are building a bridge, landscaping a new park, or taking a photograph, you are working for the people. So, the reasoning is — the people own the results. I’m surprised that more people have not come up with ways of selectively distributing the photos that are gathering dust in U.S. government archives. Tom Carroll’s approach is certainly valid. And we’ll no doubt see many mini-stock agencies begin to use the advantages of the Internet to distribute public domain images that are available to the people for the asking.

The subject s of these stock images range from aviation (historical to modern; U.S. to Russian); naval (most countries represented); agriculture (historical as well as new and innovative); photos from NASA, and even from the Central Intelligence Agency, which images, believe it or not, are also public domain and available (see page 212 in


The federal government (U.S.) cannot own copyright, but even so, not all photographs on “.gov” and “.mil” sites are public domain. For example, a private donor or a foundation might donate a copyrighted image to a federal institution with the restriction that the copyright of the image will eventually revert to the estate of the original owner. Same is true for some photographers who make photos for the government on a “work-for-hire” basis, in which case the images may be copyrighted by the photographer and not the government. If you find an image on a U.S. government Internet site, it is most likely useable as a public domain photo, but you’d need to confirm that.

Keep in mind that our organization, PhotoSource International, focuses on editorial photography used in books and magazines. Commercial use of a public domain photo is another issue, and will have strong restrictions for its use. To learn how the government looks at this situation, check out pamphlet 195 at

A good place to find the source of public domain images that have little or no publication restrictions on them is:

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Rohn Engh, veteran stock photographer and best-selling author of “Sell & ReSell Your Photos” and “,” has helped scores of photographers launch their careers. For access to great information on making money from pictures you like to take, and to receive this free report: “8 Steps to Becoming a Published Photographer,” visit


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