From home movies to indie films
Everyone’s heard of stock photo websites where you can find images to use in your projects, both commercial and non-commercial. Did you know that you can also find stock video?
If you’re looking for an economical way to add diversity to the variety of shots in your project, using public domain footage or video is a great idea.
Creative Commons Vs. Public Domain Footage
Some people confuse works licensed by Creative Commons with works that are in the public domain. If a work is in the public domain, that means anyone can use it for whatever reason they want. No one owns works that are in the public domain. In contrast, CC licenses are only applied to works that would otherwise be copyright-protected.
For creators who want to affirmatively place their works in the public domain to the extent possible, Creative Commons offers the CC0 “no rights reserved” license.
It’s up to you to determine and follow the usage, licensing, and royalty restrictions on any image, film, or video you use in your projects. Ignorance of the law is no defense, so be sure to do your due diligence. Another important thing to remember is that just because some film or video footage is in the public domain doesn’t mean that websites can’t charge you for it.
Best Public Domain Footage Sites
There are lots of sites you can use to search for stock video for your projects, both free and for purchase. In this article, we’ll focus on sites that offer film and video that are in the public domain, giving you some resources to put together the best video project you can.
Most are free, but some may require a small fee—and are likely far less expensive than purchasing stock footage that is not in the public domain.
PublicDomainFootage.com has a catalog of public domain archival stock footage and newsreels. Their archival and newsreel footage is organized by categories including entertainment, pop culture, religion, retro sports, and civil rights among others.
You’ll pay to download the footage (most clips cost between $10 and $150), and then you can use it in any of your projects.
You can search vimeo.com for files that include the Creative Commons public domain dedication, and then you can search within those results.
Confirm the CC0 license for any particular video on its main page by selecting the More link. An About popup will appear listing the video’s title, uploader, date of upload, license, and tags. Look for the CC0 license icon in the license field.
Pond5’s Public Domain Project offers videos that are free for private and commercial use. In addition to public domain footage, you can also search for audio, images, and 3D models in the public domain.
Pond5’s search function includes several useful filters. For example, you can upload your own video or image and then search for videos that are similar in composition or color.
The Prelinger Archives on archive.org includes thousands of films, with an emphasis on home movies and amateur films. You will likely pay a fee to license the use of clips from this collection.
Why do you have to pay if these films are in the public domain? They explain in their FAQ. Since the Internet Archive isn’t in the business of issuing licenses for the use of the material in its collections, that means the risk would all be yours if you choose to use the films you find there in your projects. You would be responsible for ensuring that every piece of footage you use is actually in the public domain and, if not, that you have the appropriate license to use it.
To save you that work, the Prelinger Archives works with Getty Images to license the films in the Prelinger collection, and Getty Images charges you a fee for that license. The benefit to you is that Getty Images indemnifies you if anyone makes a copyright infringement claim against you. In other words, with a license from Getty Images, you don’t have anything to worry about.
This not-for-profit project is “dedicated to the exploration of curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas” with a spotlight on content that is in the public domain. Search their film collection, and you’ll be able to filter by epoch, genre, theme, or type.
The National Screening Room is an effort by the Library of Congress to highlight their huge archive of old movies to viewers everywhere. While the “vast majority” of films in their collections have no copyright or other restrictions, remember, it’s still your responsibility to confirm your usage rights.
The National Park Service (NPS) offers the Grand Canyon National Park’s B-Roll archive, a catalog of downloadable video clips for your projects.
As they note, everything in the B-Roll archive is in the public domain, so you don’t need to get their permission to use video in this collection. However, you can’t use their video to imply that the NPS endorses any product, service, organization, or person without their express permission.
This archive includes aerial views of the Grand Canyon, time lapse video from the canyon rims, some scenic views, and videos of the Colorado River.