The Internet Archive: public domain images for media creators and researchers

Moving Image section of Internet Archive


This article has been co-written with Raquel Herrera, researcher and translator focused on Media and the Arts, and an expert on visual social media. Originally posted in Spanish in January 31st,  2015. Translated on March 19th, 2015

1. Information needs for media experts

Experts having to work with images which are not their own have two fundamental ways of obtaining material:

  • Through a commission, which means commissioning images to experts or   producing their own images. In this situation, images are commissioned to a photographer or production team. Otherwise, images are produced by the creator herself, as in “I am going to create the ultimate photographic report of the parks in Barcelona”, and then she uploads and publishes the report somewhere.
  • Through a stock, which means resorting to an image bank to search, select, and, if necessary, acquire and use stock or archive images.

There is a third option, which can be easily deduced from the two previous ones:

  • When the creator or production company needs to combine their own footage with stock material. The classic reference in this case is the film Forrest Gump, where producers had to conduct thorough research about stock footage. Nowadays, there are thousands (or even tens of thousands, to be more precise) of film productions which are also resorting to this third option.

The fourth option resembles a creativity loop, for it is the following:

  • Media creators can always create images (thus, they can self-commission footage) to later upload them to image banks. But this is another story, to be studied in other articles.

Media professionals often resort to stock images for several reasons. Let us see the three key reasons for this:

  1. Because production needs cannot be satisfied by commissioning a new shooting every time. For instance, if we need historical images to add to a report. We cannot send someone back in time to shoot those images. But what we can actually do is research an image bank and search for a specific video (or video footage in general) on the time period we are interested in.
  2. For research purposes. If a media historian or expert needs to examine video or film of some kind (for example: advertising from the 1980s, animation films with such and such characteristics) an image bank can be the right place to start looking. On the other hand, numerous media researchers who are also media practitioners, such as video directors, art directors or videojockeys (meaning those who create and manipulate images synchronized to music in real time, and for live audiences) might need public domain images to add to their sessions, both for working and inspiration material.
  3. For teaching purposes. Professors specialized in media might benefit greatly, and also benefit their students, from using video material to present case studies or to conduct other kinds of analyses in class. Students themselves might also improve their academic assignments if they use video footage or specific videos coming from these image banks.

To satisfy any variation of the first information need, and specifically regarding commercial productions (or productions having a production or postproduction budget), there are excellent banks with static and moving images, offering several prices adapted to the different production fields (advertising, fiction, documentaries on current events). These are some of the best:

Nonetheless, for some of the productions in the first case (for example, for non-profit productions), and particularly in scenarios two and three, image banks might not be that useful. Although they present some advantages such as quality footage, being easy to search and having their copyright issues solved, their use might not be feasible due to economic reasons.

Thus, in those other cases, meaning (a) when production needs are not driven by a commercial structure and/or (b) we dot not have the budget to acquire videos or to pay for licenses and/or (c) image use is related to research and teachings purposes, what makes sense is not to do without images banks, but to use those presenting public domain content.

 2. Internet Archive – Moving Image

Internet Archive is a non-profit organization founded by computer and artificial intelligence entrepreneur and inventor Brewster Kahle (who, among other things, founded the website analysis company Alexa, which is now owned by Amazon).

The truth is that the mission of Internet Archive (IA) resembles a perfectly impossible goal, which is to create a digital library to, in the words of its founder, provide “universal access to all knowledge”. With this view, he initially undertook the titanic task of archiving the entire Internet; hence its name. Unluckily (or luckily?) for us, not the entire Internet is archived on his digital library, but he has already saved a significant number of webpages (456 billion by March 2015), which can be browsed through its WayBack Machine.

What is important for this article is that, due to some derivation, Internet Archive has ended up archiving many types of documents, and one of its sections is devoted to moving images: Internet Archive – Moving Images

In this case, Internet Archive has listed more than 1, 9 million items considered as “movies”. But was does IA understand as “movies”?

Actually, it is a very wide category including everything from video fragments to full-length feature films, animation short films and advertising, as shown in this sub-collections list taken directly from IA.

  • Animation & Cartoons
    Whether you want to watch classic cartoons from a bygone era, Brick Films made with your favorite building toys, Machinima patched together from video games, or the artful computer animations…
    2,471 items
  • Arts & Music
    This library of arts and music videos features This or That (a burlesque game show), the Coffee House TV arts program, punk bands from Punkcast and live performances from Groove TV. Many of these…
    1,801 items
  • Community Video
    You are invited to view or upload your videos to the Community collection. These thousands of videos were contributed by Archive users and community members. These videos are available for free…
    456,976 items
  • Computers & Technology
    Featuring two television programs popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s: Computer Chronicles and Net Café, this library showcases videos about computing and technology. Collection topics include BBS, the…
    95,065 items
  • Cultural & Academic Films
    This library of academic and cultural films features collections from the Academic Film Archive and the Media Burn Independent Film Archive, as well as a selection of documentaries created by Dorothy…
    13,546 items
  • Ephemeral Films
    Ephemeral films are non-fiction films usually made for educational, industrial, or promotional purposes. The two classic ephemeral film collections found on the Archive are the Prelinger Archives and…
    2,660 items
  • Movies
    Watch full-length feature films, classic shorts, world culture documentaries, World War II propaganda, movie trailers, and films created in just ten hours: These options are all featured in this…
    17,002 items
  • News & Public Affairs
    An analysis of news and public affairs independent from traditional corporate media is available from this diverse video library. From Democracy Now’s daily news program, to three days of TV news…
    102,593 items
  • Prelinger Archives
    View thousands of films from the Prelinger Archives! Prelinger Archives was founded in 1983 by Rick Prelinger in New York City. Over the next twenty years, it grew into a collection of over 60,000…
    6,455 items
  • Spirituality & Religion
    View videos about spirituality and religion.
    104,869 items
  • Sports Videos
    From soccer to sailing, to rock climbing, cheerleading, and underwater hockey: You are invited to watch or download free sports videos contributed by Archive users!
    4,281 items
  • Television
    Collections of items recorded from television, including commercials, old television shows, government proceedings, and more.
    5,629 items
  • Videogame Videos
    The Internet Archive is working with multiple external parties, including the IGDA’s Preservation SIG and Stanford University’s How They Got Game Project to preserve all kinds of rare and difficult…
    7,352 items
  • Vlogs
    More serious (or at least prolific) vloggers are showcased in this video library. You may learn how to be happy, geocache, run, or play boardgames by keeping up with these vloggers’ videos. In…
    86,216 items
  • Youth Media
    Videos created by (or which are about) teens and young adults are featured in the Youth Media collection.
    678 items

Nonetheless, full-length fiction films are not the most present category in the Moving Imags sub-collections, but other genres abound. Many files in this section were developed independently to Holllywood’s historic production system.

In this regard, it also significant the sub-collection called Ephemeral Films, which presents films created for educational purposes, industrial films and other forms of paracinema (as opposed to commercial cinema). If we went through the latest artistic and advertising moving image productions in our current media landscape, it would not be surprising to detect many creators who have delved into the most peculiar aspects of image creation by adding the sort of movies IA presents as “ephemeral”.

On the other hand, the sub-collection named Prelinger Archives is also noteworthy. It was founded by the private initiative of San Francisco-based archivist Rick Prelinger, His moving image collection has derived, for example, in found footage-based studies regarding amateur film in the United States. These studies are significant because of how hegemonic Hollywood production companies have been in the American media system. By the way, Prelinger visited the MACBA three years ago and was interviewed regarding his use of found footage in film.

3. Terms of use

If not indicated otherwise, all the materials which are part of The Internet Archive are supposed to be under some kind of public domain license. Often these are documents released under Creative Commons licenses, which means different licensing situations: some might be used for commercial purposes and others not; some can be modified and transformed and others not, and so on.

In any case, the IA organization does not conduct a systematic verification process, and they also stress that the user is ultimately responsible for checking whether the images of interest are actually saved under a license which allows for their foreseen usage.

Thus, and it is important to emphasize this, if using these images in a project which is bound to have a public dimension, and therefore going beyond a class or laboratory (as in case 1) it is essential to make sure, image after image, that the material we want to use does explicit present the corresponding license, which should be available in the record for each document provided by the archive.

4. Conclusions

  • As the vastness of the Moving Image section in Internet Archive makes apparent, it is hard not to consider it a very significant support to any of the three previously described information needs; particularly, and above all, to the second and third ones. Some time has to be invested in exploring this section, since there are not many search options available, but the exploration is bound to provide very good results.
  • The multiple categories of the sub-collections in the Moving Image section are particularly attractive to retrieve historic archives, particularly those which are situated outside the boundaries of the film industry understood as both business and fiction.
  • Comparative Studies should also be conducted contrasting the (relative) ease of access and use of the documents in Internet Archive with the efforts put into the online digitisation of several public and private film libraries at a national and international level, which are focused on preserving media material. Documental treatment and other access aspects are usually better designed in these kinds of film libraries, although we should not generalize on this matter.
  • We do not have any record that Google has created a similar project regarding media content. However, if considering for example Google Art Project or Google Books, Google’s efforts to digitize static images in high resolution have proved to be fruitful.
  • It is possible to establish a link between Internet Archive and other privately-funded projects such as Ubuweb, which is partially focused on moving images from avant-garde artists.
  • Last but not least, it is important to insist on reproduction rights again, since they have not been solved in each and every item of the archive. Although the rights situation is supposed to be indicated at every record, users are expected to check this out in every case. Also, there are many differences regarding image quality and information retrieval options, considering that, as we have already mentioned, neither the documentary treatment nor the search system are particularly outstanding.


When this article was written and published (March 2015), a new version of Internet Archive was being organized and present online in a beta state. You can see it here. Although icons and other visual elements had been introduced, the fundamental sections and subcollections had not changed in the beta version.

The co-author of this article, Raquel Herrera holds a PhD in Social Communication from Universitat Pompeu Fabra, is a part-time professor at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and a contributor to the research group DigiDoc at UPF. Her research focuses on discourse and content analysis of images in the digital society.
Citation style format: Lluís Codina, Raquel Herrera. The Internet Archive: public domain images for media creators and researchers. March 2015. Access: