Public domain footage refers to any video which is not subject to copyright. Anyone can freely use such videos, without having to ask for permission. Videos can enter the public domain when the copyright protection expires or if the video was created by organisations like the government which is mostly not subject to copyright. Technically, all such videos can be used for commercial purposes. But you must be careful, as some videos may feature celebrities or contain third party intellectual property. This may lead to legal complications, so it’s best to avoid them. When using any public domain footage for commercial purposes, credit the creator or the source from which you’re sourcing the footage to be safe. We’ve put together some great resources/websites to help you source such public domain footage, without hassle for your documentary or project.
1. Prelinger Archive
This archive is housed at archive.org or the Internet Archive. Founded in 1983, it’s one of the largest online public domain video libraries. It holds several thousand digitised and videotape titles, home movies, amateur and industrial films. About 65% of this material is in the public domain. It is a great source of historically relevant material. You can download several public domain films made by non-profit organisations, educational institutions, community and interest groups, trade associations and corporations, for free. Different download options are also available for the files, so you can choose the type which suits you the most.
2. The Moving Image Archive
This is another archive housed at archive.org, holding countless easily accessible videos. It includes collections of feature films, art videos, animations, concerts, news broadcasts and more. However, anyone can upload videos here, so be sure to check the terms of each video carefully before using them. As the website describes, the videos are provided with “near-unrestricted access.” But many videos are available in the public domain and cover a broad range of topics, making this archive a handy resource.
3. The Public Domain Review
This is an excellent platform, containing many old films and other material of historical, cultural, and artistic value. Those interested in research will find it incredibly useful. As the website says, it focuses on “the surprising, the strange, and the beautiful.” You can filter movies through different categories like epoch, genre, theme, etc, and through many sub-categories. This makes it easy to locate the kind of material you’re looking for. Most of the films are from the 1890s to the mid-20th century. The films are available with different public domain licenses, so you must ensure that the terms of the video align with your purpose.
4. Pond5’s Public Domain Project
The widely-used Pond5 platform’s Public Domain Project contains thousands of public domain videos available for free download. These are videos of historical value, and are available in HD resolution. The drawback is that these videos run for a duration of two minutes or less, and have no audio. Pond5 offers advanced search tools, making it easier for you to find your desired video clips. You’ll have to create an account on Pond5 in order to download these videos.
5. The National Screening Room
This project was created by the Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center to showcase their vast collection of otherwise unavailable movies. They hold many interesting historical and cultural documents, mostly filmed in the USA during the 20th century. It is a good source for finding educational and research material which covers that context. Most of the titles are available in both 5 MB MP4 and ProRes 422 MOV/Quicktime download formats.
This is a great source, containing a huge amount of public domain archival stock footage and newsreels. They have several high-profile clients, including The Discovery Channel, HBO, and ESPN among others. Their archival footage and historic newsreels are divided into categories like Atomic Age, Innovation, Pop Culture, Retro Sports and several others. They have more footage than is uploaded on the website, and you can send them a request for footage that you don’t find there. After you’ve paid a one-time fee to download a public domain video, you can use it as many times as you like.
7. National Park Service B-Roll Archive
This resource provides access to public domain videos from National Park Service sites, including national parks, monuments, historic sites etc. All videos in the Grand Canyon B-Roll Video Index are in the public domain. The archive holds many videos showing scenic views of the Grand Canyon, Colorado River and more. They are free to use and download without permission. However, you cannot use the videos to imply that NPS endorses any product, service, organization, or person without receiving their permission.
8. The National Archives: Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Holdings
They house a huge number of diverse film reels, sound recordings, and video recordings. They’ve several videos created or produced by the US government, which are all considered to be in the public domain. However, not all the videos available here are in the public domain. And several public domain videos are not available online, which may incur extra costs. So be mindful of the terms of usage of the videos you choose.
This resource offers an impressive collection of free public domain stock footage. However, the free videos typically run for thirty seconds or less, so it’s better suited as extra material for your video rather than an entire project. The website is user-friendly and it’s easy to locate good quality material which suits your needs. Again, not all videos are in the public domain, so make sure to go through the terms before using anything.
10. NASA’s Video Gallery
If you are looking for public domain footage around space exploration, NASA is a great resource. It holds a lot of material produced by the government, like texture maps and polygon data used to create 3-dimensional models. These fall under the public domain and are free to use “for educational or informational purposes, including photo collections, textbooks, public exhibits, computer graphical simulations and Internet Web pages.” However, if you are using it for commercial purposes, you cannot “explicitly or implicitly convey NASA’s endorsement of commercial goods or services.”
11. Motion Elements
This resource holds thousands of free public domain stock videos covering a broad range of topics like nature, travel, cityscapes and more. The website is easy to navigate and contains many stock videos in HD quality. You have to create an account in order to download their videos. And the platform allows only up to five downloads a week. You can download more videos by inviting your friends to the platform. It’s a great source of stock footage which can be used without any restrictions.
12. Pixabay Videos
Pixabay offers thousands of free public domain videos. You don’t need permission to use or modify the clips, and they may be used for commercial or non-commercial purposes. However, some videos may feature logos, brands, identifiable people, and other third-party content, which won’t be covered under the terms of using public domain footage. You’ll need third party permission to use such videos, particularly for commercial purposes. So be mindful regarding the content and terms of any video you pick from here.
13. Vimeo Public Domain Channel
Vimeo offers this channel, which is entirely dedicated to the public domain. It holds different types of content in 4K and HD quality, and is easy to use. However, not all videos on Vimeo are in the public domain, so be sure to check the licence section of any video you wish to use and confirm its status.
This is another platform offering free public domain stock footage in 4K and HD resolution. A great variety of material is available here, which can be used freely for personal and commercial purposes. But this doesn’t cover all available videos, so be mindful of that. Premium clips are marked “Pro” on the thumbnail and can only be used by giving attribution.
If you need footage that isn’t available in the public domain, your next best option is videos which have a Creative Commons licence. This is a type of licence where the content creator reserves some rights to their work and forfeits others, allowing you to use their material under a few conditions. You must attribute the creator and respect all other terms of their licence in order to use such footage. Any failure in this regard can have legal consequences. Creative Commons licences are of several types, so read the terms of usage of any video with this protection carefully.
Here are some websites which offer Creative Commons-licensed videos: Vidsplay, Vimeo, CreativeCommons.org, WikiMedia Commons, YouTube, Hubble Space Telescope Videos, Videvo, and Life of Vids.
There we are! These are some great resources where you can source public domain footage for your next film or project.