Finding and Using Media Assets Legally, for Free — and responsibly

You’ll sometimes want to use media assets that you have not created yourself — for example videos, audio and music in your multimedia assignments. And you can do this, but It’s important to understand the rules and regulations for use. This guide will point you to some sources to find assets you can legally use, as well help you understand some best practices when looking for free media on the web.

This image is a derivative work of Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix. (Sourced from Wikipedia). This file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

NOTE: We take copyright very seriously in the program, both Chinese and international news and websites regularly use assets that they are not legally permitted to use. We find initially many students believe crediting or linking to the creator or original source means you can use an asset. This is false — attribution does not cover you for copyright. This is only the case if the licence for the material explicitly says so. As an international journalism program, illegal use of assets is not tolerated and assignments including illegal usage of assets will result in automatic immediate fail. In the real world copyright infringement can lead to serious penalties.

We’ll cover the topics below, all rather briefly, but this is a solid starting point and you can dig in further in the future.

  • Essential Terminology & Licenses: Explaining some of the terms and various kinds of common licenses
  • Resources: A collection of resources that you can scour for free assets
  • Fair use: (COMING SOON) A bit of a minefield, but we’ll explain some basics
  • Sourcing & verification from social + UCG sources: (COMING SOON) This is a slight tangent and there’ll be another article in the future dealing more specifically with this. Using images responsibly.

Essential Terminology & Licences

Copyright: Literally means the legal right to copy. The person(s) who owns the copyright of a work is the only person who can copy that work or give permission or license to someone else to copy it — to use, print, publish or adapt it. It’s the same as owning a car or a toy — you own it, and you can lend or give it to a friend, sell it or alter it. But if someone comes along and steals your car you call the police.

Copyright law applies to a broad range of intellectual property, some which apply more particularly to journalists include: Writing (books, articles, reviews, poems, essays, blogs — whether online or printed). Website content, including text, pictures, graphics. Video and audio such as films, podcasts, raw clips etc. Music and Artistic work including paintings, drawings, graphics, maps, charts, and photography.

Copyrights is held by the people who create something: from Wikipedia:

Copyright is the set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work.

Licensing: Licenses grant legal permission to use something — in our case as multimedia journalists that may mean photos, video clips or music. Whether free or not, these assets typically have a license. Copyrights and licenses are similar, they both give specific rights to the people that hold them. But whereas copyright is owned by the creator. licenses grant the rights that a copyright holder owns to someone else. For example:

  • Let’s say I film a video clip of Tiananmen Square. If I chose to make that clip available to others, then I should make a license that defines what users can and cannot do with that video clip. I could for example tell everyone using the video clip that they can use it in their work, but only if they are not selling that work. Or, I could say they can use the video clip but they cannot alter it. (For example they cannot edit a blue or grey or green sky onto the footage). Often times, we don’t create our own licenses and you’ll notice if you upload images to flicker or videos to YouTube or Vimeo there are a number of licensing options.
  • In the real world licensing matters, and it may matter to you sooner than you think. For example, when I upload to Vimeo I allow my videos to be embeddable, that means people are free to embed them in the entire state as I created the work. I do not tend to permit a license which allows a user to use a piece of of change the work. That’s because my footage often involves real people and I want to responsibly protect people iv’e filmed. So, If somebody wants to use my work, they’ll usually contact me. Many times, If they want to use a footage in a non-commercial situation (not making money). I’ll often grant free use. However if a company like google wants to use a film or clip, then i’ll find out how they want to use the clip and negotiate a price. Last year two people approached me to use a 5 second clip of female Hui muslims praying in central China. Using a short clip of people at prayer out of context rang immediate warnings. The first organisation was a Christian group, I could imagine the context in which they would use the clip would really respect the people in the clip, and so I declined without discussion and made it clear to the organisation that work was not to be used and I would take legal action if it were. The second organisation was Google, who wanted to use the same clip for an advertisement. First I emailed back and forth to understand the way and context in which the clip would be used, which I felt comfortable with. Next, I contacted the two women visible in the clip, told them the context and asked their permission. While I was not legally bound to do this, I had gained trust from my sources to allow me to film an intimate moment, and would not want to abuse that trust. The two ladies agreed, I negotiated an appropriate license usage and fee from Google and then shared the fee with the women. That seemed fair. Finally a small organisation asked to screen the film in entirety at an exhibition of female muslims. I agreed at no charge.

For students and professionals, understanding the limitations of different licenses is important — there are so many free and legal assets out there, there’s really no need to behave badly. And as a creative person understanding copyright and licensing will also help you to protect your own work.

Public Domain: Means that the copyright has expired, if the work isn’t in the public domain and you don’t have permission to use a piece, you put yourself in risk of legal action. See the header picture for an example of public domain. (NOTE: public domain in one country may not be public domain in another.) Check out this GUIDE TO FINDING INTERESTING PUBLIC DOMAIN WORKS ONLINE.

Photo by Per Åström

Attribution: acknowledging the author of a work. Usually this requires the person’s name with the copyright symbol, and a link back to the source.

For example, I just found this picture (Left) on It’s license says I can use it for free, I can even alter it if I like. But I must attribute the creator and supply a link to the license, which I have done by linking to the original image. Thanks Per!

Royalty free: this generally refers to media which is paid for once and can then be used multiple times in different contexts. NOTE: Royalty free does not mean that the work is copyright free. The license terms and conditions will determine how the asset can be used. As an example, you might pay for a download or CD of ‘royalty free’ pictures, music or sound effects. You can then use them in multiple video, audio stories or podcasts. Other licenses may mean you have to pay for the same piece of music if used in different projects.

Creative Commons (CC): is a nonprofit organisation that provides a standardised way to grant copyright permissions to an organisation, individual or company. This link tells you how to attribute.

Creative Commons Attribution license quick and awesome review.

CC licensed assets maybe be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, according to the limitations of the specific of copyright license. Do watch the short video left for an overview. CC is going to be really useful for you as students and professionals, as this is the license that you are likely to use most. There’ s a vast amount of CC licensed work online, much of it is free for you to use. However within the CC license there are a number of various licenses with different usage rights. You’ll need to do your own reading but find the basic licenses below:

Find more details at


Audio & Sound Effects

freesound: A large selection of audio recordings, clips and more licensed under CC.

SoundBible: Free and royalty free sound effects and clips for video editors.

freeSFX: A thorough library of sound effects from animals to weaponry. The licensing requires crediting and has restrictions.


Jamendo: Has a huge library of tracks, not all of them are licensed under Creative Commons, so be sure to choose only the tracks that are available to use for free. While you can’t filter your search results to show only CC-licensed results, any tracks that aren’t free to use will have a ‘pro’ button next to them so they’re easy to spot. The license for the tracks are listed at the bottom of the page — scroll down to the very bottom to check exactly how you can use the audio.

Audionautix: features only music licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 license. That means you are free to share and remix the audio, and use it commercially. You can search for tracks not only by genre, but also by mood and tempo. This could make it much easier to stumble upon the perfect track for your work.

FreeMusicArchive: A standard for finding quality free music.

SoundCloud: The large library has a large section devoted to CC tracks but is a little tricky to search.

Incompetech: From the composer, Kevin MacLeod, who has devoted himself to free and inexpensive musical tracks.

Moby: has also made a selection of over 150 tracks from his huge catalog of music available, requires sign up.

I have taken the following suggestions of composers who have licensed most of their work either under CC or for a minimal fee from a Berkley Advanced Media Institute Online Tutorial

  • Chris Zabriskie: ambient minimal electronic music, great for mood and tone
  • Broke for Free: funky and upbeat, good for movement and energy
  • Lee Rosevere: over 200 tracks inspired by classical and sophisticated
  • Podington Bear

Sound of Picture: has great music from many genres, some is cc licensed and free others are inexpensive at $5 to $50 per track.


Video more limited than music for creative commons, but it’s growing.

Vimeo — Vimeo has quite a large CC section.

Mazwai — All the downloadable videos are under the Attribution license (CC BY 3.0). As with all downloads, read the license agreement carefully before using these videos.

Videvo — A growing archive of video clips, motion graphics and animations. Some free with conditions, others are royalty free.

YouTube — The king of video sites has CC licensed videos, but it’s not easy to search for. Check licensing for individual videos in the “show more” tab. Check out information on YouTube’s policy on CC videos:

Motion Elements — Motion Elements is a source of premium stock videos. It also offers around 400 videos to download for free.

Ignite Motion — Ignite Motion is a place to download animated backgrounds and video loopbacks, which can be used for personal or commercial purposes.

Free Footage — Free Footage is a place to find various collections of HD quality video footage.

Pexels Videos — offers completely free videos. All videos are licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. This means you can edit or change the videos and use them free for personal and even for commercial projects. All without asking for permission or setting a link to the source. So that attribution is not required. With our swiftly growing database of videos, you are guaranteed to find the perfect footage for your website header, product promotion, or anything else.

Footage Crate— Footage Crate offers free and royalty-free video resources for independent filmmakers and creative persons.

Splasheo — is a source of free video boosters. You can also create your own custom animations using different pictures on this website.

Flix Press — FlixPress is a place to create professional video templates. FlixPress also offers some video templates for free. Just register for an account and select the free templates from their template library.

Beachfront B-Roll — Beachfront is a blogspot compilation where you can download unique HD stock footage and animated backgrounds for any production purpose.

Motion Backgrounds — Motion Backgrounds is a place to download professional quality motion backgrounds and video footage.


Images are often the easiest to find as there are an abundance of CC resources or public domain images on the web.

Wikimedia Commons — A free media repository from Wikipedia that aggregates CC and public domain content from all over the web. Check where an image came from before you use it.

Pixabay — Website aggregating public domain and CC images from around the web.

Flickr CC — Tonnes of Flickr users choose to mark their images as CC resulting in plenty of free images. Plus, this site has easy to use search by license types.

500px — A mobile-based photo sharing network much smaller than Flickr, but it has some good CC photos. It also gives you the option to buy a commercials license for the photos.

The Noun Project — Plenty of icons useful for graphics. Use for free by giving credit or royalty free with a small fee.

Google Images Advanced Search — In Google Images, use the usage rights drop down menu in search tools to look for images. The license vary so click through the image to verify the licensing.

Shuttersock — Provides high-quality licensed images, videos, and music for a fee, many reasonably priced.

Getty — Share more than 50 million images. It’s easy, legal and free.

Historical Images

China — Duke Digital Collections 2015. ‘Sidney D. Gamble Photographs — Over 5,000 photographs, primarily of China, 1908–1932. The collection is made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. Texts and images from this collection may not be used for any commercial purpose without prior permission. You’ll need to contact the library to use in project work, but you are likely to gain it.

US Gov Archives — A collection of US Government graphics and images.

Flickr Archives — The National Archives on Flickr.

Flickr British Library — The UK’s sister to Flickr Archives.

Flickr Institutions — Public-domain image archives from a good range of museums, institutions, schools etc. Lots of art + historical photography.

Library of Congress — Not all are free to use.

National Library of Medicine —


If you’d really like to use an image, video, song or graphic and you can’t find or afford licensing options — try contacting the creator, outlining why and how you’ll use their work and ask them. Iv’e negotiated free and much cheaper assets this way.

Fair Use

This is about the best guide there is, it’s intended for the US, but it’s useful globally.

This document is a statement of principles to help journalists in the United States interpret the copyright doctrine of fair use. It is intended for anyone who engages in the set of practices that entails creating media of any kind that refers to real-life events of public interest, in service of public knowledge, whether that person is a full-time professional or an individual who takes it upon himself or herself to report about specific issues or events. In other words, the definition of “journalism” to which this document speaks is defined by acts, not titles, and is an inclusive one, reflecting (in part) the changing nature of the technologies that support and enable journalistic practice.

Fair use is the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment under some circumstances — especially when the cultural or social benefits of the use are predominant. It is a general right that applies even in situations where the law does not provide an explicit authorization for the specific use in question. As with more familiar rights of free expression, people use this right without any formal notification or registration.

This guide identifies seven situations that represent the current consensus within the community of working journalists about acceptable practices for the fair use of copyrighted materials. It identifies some common situations encountered by journalists, principles for the application of fair use in those situations, and the limitations that journalists recommend to define the zone of greatest comfort for employment of this right — all consistent with the development of the fair use doctrine in the courts.

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