Just because an image is on a website does not mean it is in the public domain.
“If an image is on a website, it is likely that it is NOT in the Public Domain.”
Public Domain sounds like it is somewhere that the public hangs out, a public space that belongs to everyone. That is exactly what the term originated. The Roman believed that there were things that could not be owned by anyone, like the air, a beautiful vista, a sunrise or sunset. These were unknowable, and were part of the public domain.
But when it comes to our modern world generally speaking anything someone creates like a photo, illustration, painting, design, book, article, like this….should be always considered copyrighted. The whole issue of copyright can be a headache, and Wikipedia “Public Domain” is pretty thick with all the ins and outs of it. But if you think of ‘copyright’ being like a lovely car parked on the side of the road it begins to clarify what public domain means. The car is parked there, out in the open air, right where you walk and enjoy the sights and sounds of your location. It may be a fantastic color that just makes the scene really pop, a brilliant fire engine red, or brilliant yellow that stops you dead in your tracks. But you can’t just jump into that car and take it home. You know if you do , without permission, then you will be in trouble. Nor can you decide to go home and build that exact car and and pretend you designed the whole thing yourself. So just because something is sitting out in the open where you are wandering around like everyone else and you like something, doesn’t mean you can pick it up and take it home.
It is easier to think of ‘Public Domain’ as a period of time. Public Domain is like space time calendar. Depending on the year and the law, there is a period of time, usually further back than 100 years in which some works can be accessed used and copied by anyone. There are plenty of exceptions that we could drum up a happy debate. The 100 year lard stick is handy because it represents a creators life time. Copyright of works can also be passed down to family members and so a copyright can last way longer than the creator. So there is an endless list of legal aspects to be concerned, but unless you are bound and determined to use something that you did not create yourself, its best to adopt a respectful hands off approach unless you research the work thoroughly.
A good rule of thumb to use is that if something looks or sounds like it was made in the last 100 years, then you can be pretty certain someone owns it.
Thanks to the Romans and their wonderful term, the misunderstanding is a common mistake, but one which can end up taking up a big portion of your time correcting it or even end up costing you money in lawsuits.
When you do use public domain images, be sure to credit them. Here is an example of what to write:
ABOVE image credit: Nero’s Torches (Christian Candlesticks). Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
CENTER image credit: The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.