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Using footage that isn’t originally yours can be complicated, and if you have to license the rights, expensive. Especially if you’re an independent filmmaker, it often is not a good use of your budget to license a clip to be used once in the film.
That said, there is plenty of footage out there that is free to use with no restrictions. In fact, there are entire genres of filmmaking that utilize this. Some pretty impressive found footage and experimental films have been made without paying a single penny for licensing, and you can do the same.
This is where public domain footage comes into play. Public domain footage is free to use without any restrictions or attribution in any manner you desire. To avoid copyright infringements while still using footage that you didn’t shoot, the public domain is your best bet.
Public Domain vs. Royalty Free vs. Creative Commons
Chances are you’ve heard of royalty-free footage, public domain footage, and the creative commons. If not, these are different licenses that determine how you can use footage that isn’t originally yours. All are extremely useful, though there are some important differences.
Public Domain footage belongs to everyone. There are no restrictions. You will not have to license any rights, attribute anyone, or clear any legal barriers (it is important to note that these laws vary between countries, which is written according to United States law).
Creative Commons footage is oftentimes free for your use. However, there may be restrictions. Most often, this will be a required attribution of some sort. While still useful, there are some legal restrictions, and it is important to watch out for.
Royalty-Free footage, while still a great resource, requires a license to use. Therefore you will most often have to pay for this footage. However, this will be a one-time purchase (you will never have to pay royalties), and you can use it for any project any number of times without restriction.
Why Public Domain?
For this article, we will be focusing on public domain sources primarily. There are a ton of great websites for royalty-free stock footage that have their own licensing agreements. However, these can vary between sites. To assume the least legal risk, public domain footage is best.
It is important to note that if you search public domain footage, many royalty-free sites will appear. For each clip you plan on using, make sure to note the licensing agreement.
Now, with all that out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the best places to find public domain footage that you can use.
1. Moving Image Archive
Up first is the Moving Image Archive via the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). The Internet Archive is a non-profit source for public domain and creative commons footage where a variety of archivists have uploaded footage they’ve collected over the years.
The Moving Image Archive is one the most extensive archives on the site, with over 6,000,000 results. It has everything from feature films, to anime, to historical footage. If you’re looking for a certain type of shot, this is the place.
The only downside is that it is pervasive and all-encompassing, meaning it can be difficult to find exactly what you want.
Additionally, because this archive is so large, the documentation is not great. Sometimes the licensing of the footage may be stated clearly (i.e., creative commons or public domain). However, others won’t have this information listed, and I’d advise against using it.
2. Prelinger Archives
The Prelinger Archives is another archive accessible through the Internet Archive. It was founded in 1983 and has been online since 2005, so there is a lot of content available.
Much of the content you will find here are old commercials, public service announcements, and home videos. A large swath of the footage in this archive dates from the 1930s to the 1970s, making it a great source for historical projects.
As opposed to the Moving Image Archive, the Prelinger Archives are much more clearly labeled. If you’re looking for public domain footage specifically, the Prelinger Archives are a great place to start.
3. Library Of Congress
Another great source for public domain video is the Library of Congress. Their digital collection is pretty extensive and is not limited to film or video formats. If you’re looking specifically for digital video, it will be important to narrow your search by utilizing the search refinement tool they provide.
That said, the Library of Congress does a great job at organizing its resources by topic, and the fact that their digital content is bundled in collections makes it easy to get a lot of footage surrounding the same theme.
While this resource certainly isn’t as exhaustive as the Internet Archive, it can be much easier to navigate. It is also very clearly listed as Public Domain, making it one of the least risky places to collect footage.
4. NASA Image and Video Library
As you’ll notice, a lot of the best resources for public domain footage are government-run. Because of this, much of the footage is historical and outdated. However, if you’re looking for high-quality, up-to-date footage (especially of space), then the NASA Image and Video Library is for you.
In terms of public domain footage, I have probably had the most fun sifting through content from NASA. There are incredible time-lapses of earth, interesting training videos, and rockets. If these are the types of videos you need, the NASA Video Library is perfect for you.
The drawback of the NASA Image and Video library is that everything you find will be space-related. Additionally, the search tools are not as advanced as the Library of Congress or the Internet Archive, so it can be difficult to find the exact video you want.
5. National Park Service B-Roll Video
Similar to NASA, the National Park Service releases plenty of footage for the public domain. For most national parks in the United States, you can find b-roll on their site for free. From the Statue of Liberty to Yosemite, these clips can be quite useful.
Unlike some of the sites we’ve looked at, the National Park Service does not organize its footage well. Rather than one site to search through, the b-roll is only available on the individual parks pages. Therefore the quickest way to find the footage is to search “National Park Service B-Roll” followed by the park you’re looking for.
There also isn’t extensive footage per park, but it is without a doubt is public domain footage and can be quite entertaining. Included below, as an example, is a link to the Yosemite National Park B-Roll.
6. A/V Geeks
Back to Archive.org, A/V Geeks is another great source. A large quantity of the footage in this collection is home video and rather obscure, giving it a unique aesthetic. Though the use for this footage could vary dramatically, a lot of it is perfectly suited for experimental and found footage films.
In more obscure and niche collections like this, there are always incredible gems to find, and A/V Geeks is no exception. For over 10 years, the curator has been collecting films from auctions, thrift stores, and dumps. The fact that so many of them have been made available online is truly remarkable.
7. Stock Footage
The last archive we’re looking at is called Stock Footage. Just as it sounds, this is an archive specifically for stock footage. Therefore you will be less likely to find things such as interviews and commercials and more likely to encounter pick-up shots of cars, space, nature, etc.
In documentary, found footage, and experimental filmmaking, stock footage plays a huge role. There are over 1,600 videos for your use in this collection, meaning chances are you’ll find something you can use.
The limitation with this collection is the same limitation found with most archives and public domain footage; a lot of it is dated and historical. Depending on your project, this is not a bad thing.
However, there is certainly a discrepancy in the quality of what you’ll find here and today’s cameras.
To finish our list, I’ve included Pond5.com.
While technically not public domain (instead creative commons), Pond5.com is a great source for free stock footage. Additionally, they make it quite clear to see the limitations of using their content (and oftentimes, there are none).
Whereas public domain footage poses no risk, creative commons can include certain limitations. Therefore be sure to take the extra step and read what usages are allowed. Nothing is worse than a project stopping dead in its tracks for a failure to comply with clearance.
That said, Pond5.com is still a great source. As opposed to many of the historical sites we’ve looked at, this will offer high-quality (oftentimes 4k) stock footage. For commercial, corporate, or even documentary use, keep this site in mind.
There are plenty of resources out there for public domain, creative commons, and royalty free footage. Oftentimes the differences between these sites are either the types of content they provide or the types of licensing.
If you are looking for the absolute minimum risk for copyright infringement, public domain footage is the way to go. Additionally, found footage and experimental films are a very interesting and unique genre of filmmaking where footage like this is used extensively.
Unfortunately the usage of public domain footage can only go so far. For many projects you may have to look for free to use, creative commons stock footage. All this depends on the scope of your project, however always be sure to check the licensing.
Are there any public domain sites we missed? Where do you get your found footage from? Let us know in the comments below, and have fun sifting through some of these incredible archives!