Using footage that isn’t originally yours can be complicated, and if you have to license the rights, it is 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.
This is where public domain footage comes into play, which you can use without any restrictions or attribution in any manner you desire.
Here are some of the best resources online for finding public domain footage.
Table of Contents
1. Moving Image Archive
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 various 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. This is the place if you’re looking for a particular type of shot.
The only downside is that it is pervasive and all-encompassing, making it challenging to find precisely what you want.
Additionally, because this archive is so extensive, 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 much content is available.
Much of the content here is 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 an excellent source for historical projects.
Unlike the Moving Image Archive, the Prelinger Archives are more clearly labeled. The Prelinger Archives are a great place to start if you want public-domain footage.
3. Library Of Congress
Another excellent source for public domain videos is the Library of Congress. Their digital collection is extensive and not limited to film or video formats. If you’re looking specifically for digital video, it will be essential to narrow your search by utilizing the search refinement tool they provide.
That said, the Library of Congress does a great job organizing its resources by topic, and its digital content is bundled in collections, making it easy to get a lot of footage surrounding the same theme.
While this resource isn’t as exhaustive as the Internet Archive, it can be much easier to navigate. It is also 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, many 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.
Regarding 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. The search tools are not as advanced as the Library of Congress or the Internet Archive, so finding the exact video you want can be challenging.
5. National Park Service B-Roll Video
Like 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. These clips, from the Statue of Liberty to Yosemite, can be pretty valuable.
Unlike some 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, public domain footage and can be pretty 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 excellent source. A large quantity of the footage in this collection is home video and relatively obscure, giving it a unique aesthetic. Though the use of this footage could vary dramatically, much of it is ideally 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. The curator has collected films from auctions, thrift stores, and dumps for over ten years. So many of them have been made available online, which is 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 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 considerable 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 undoubtedly 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 an excellent source for free stock footage. Additionally, often, there are no limitations to using their content.
Whereas public domain footage poses no risk, creative commons can include specific limitations.
Therefore, take the extra step and read what usage is 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 (often 4k) stock footage. Keep this site in mind for commercial, corporate, or even documentary use.
Public Domain vs. Royalty Free vs. Creative Commons Explained
Chances are you’ve heard of royalty-free footage, public domain footage, and the Creative Commons. If not, these licenses determine how to use footage that isn’t yours. All are extremely useful, though there are some critical 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.
However, it is important to note that these laws vary between countries and are written according to United States law.
It is also important to know that public domain footage can have multiple rightsholders in rare cases.
So – as an example – you can run into footage where one owner has released the video for the public domain, but there’s music in the clip, which isn’t. Whenever in doubt, it’s always best to contact an agency that works with clearing IP rights.
Creative Commons footage is often free for your use. However, there may be restrictions. Most often, this will be a required attribution of some sort. While still valid, some legal restrictions are essential to watch out for.
Royalty-free footage, while still a great resource, requires a license. 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.
Plenty of resources exist for public domain, creative commons, and royalty-free footage. Often, the differences between these sites are either the types of content they provide or the licensing types.
Public domain footage is the way to go if you are looking for the absolute minimum risk for copyright infringement.
Unfortunately, the usage of public domain footage can only go so far. You may have to look for free-to-use Creative Commons stock footage for many projects. 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!