Finding usable images with Wikimedia Commons

Creative Commons (CC) licences allow images (and other content) to be used without the traditional ordeal of obtaining copyright permission from the creator (or the greater ordeal of being sued for infringement). They are a valuable tool for anyone creating digital content (such as presentations), particularly if the content is to be hosted online. This post explains how to find and use CC images using Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons:

Wikimedia Commons can be found at The site provides image, video and sound content for Wikipedia and related sites. It hosts over 14 million files and is a good bet for any subject.

The images on Wikimedia are usually quite thoroughly categorised, to the extent that browsing for an image often takes time and specialist knowledge – often, it’s easiest to run a simple search.

Finding an image:

For this example I’m going to imagine I have a blog post to write on a conference about bees. I’d like to spruce this up with a bee image, so I head off to Wikimedia and search for bee:

Wikimedia Commons search results for 'bee'

First I’m presented with a list of bee-related subcategories, many of which expose my ignorance of the subject. But below the subcategories are a couple of hundred images to choose from. I decide to go for the marked photo:

Wikimedia Commons thumbnails

Downloading an image:

Clicking on the photo brings up more information – there’s a download link on the right, and several help tools that can automatically generate code snippets and attribution links:

Wikimedia Commons download link

Licence details:

Beneath the photo is the Permission area, which explains the licence:

Wikimedia Commons licence details

The information for this photo is very thorough and includes archived permission evidence, but we’re interested in the first part, the licence type. In this case it’s a Creative Commons licence.

The other licence type commonly found on Wikimedia is public domain (click to get a better look at this, or see it on an image):

Wikimedia Commons public domain example

If Wikimedia lists an image as being in the public domain, it’s free to use in any way you like. Creative Commons licences have some restrictions, which vary depending on the flavour of the licence – you might not be able to use the image commercially, you may be obliged to release any variations you make under the same licence, or you may not be able to make any variations at all. For more information, see the reusing content page on Wikimedia or Creative Commons’ own licence overview.

One requirement is common to all CC licences – attribution. This means you must credit the creator of the image.


For my blog post, I’ll add image credits to the bottom of the post, giving a link to the file’s Wikimedia page (e.g. and details of the author and the licence type.

For example, here’s a credit for the large bee image used in the screenshot above:

Bee image by ForestWander, via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

I’d use the same format for a public domain image:

Bee image by Dicentra, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

– attribution isn’t required for Wikimedia’s public domain images, but it’s good practice (and polite).

Beyond Wikimedia:

If you can’t find a useful image on Wikimedia, you can cast a wider net by using the Creative Commons search tool. From there you can search several Creative Commons image resources, such as Flickr and Google Images – the search tool ensures that only CC-licensed works are returned. The advantages of using Wikimedia are that the licence information is consistent and easy to find, and the community works to ‘police’ the images, removing any files that shouldn’t be there.

Posted on October 18, 2012, in Library and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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