Jazzing up a virtual memorial with commercial music and stock photos can quickly relieve you of your cash. But why buy the pig when all you want is a little sausage? Creative works (music, recorded interviews, images, and so on) in the public domain are like free salami. They represent the least restrictive kind of Creative Commons (CC) license. But let’s back up a sec and explain what that means.

When a copyright holder, such as a book author or a musician, agrees to let others use his or her creative output for free, the work is distributed under a CC license. Many sites, such as the Free Music Archive and Opsound, rely on this kind of licensing arrangement. There are different types of CC licenses, however, granting various re-use rights to the user. For example, some licenses allow noncommercial reuse only. Other CC licenses allow commercial reuse but require attribution. That means you must attribute or credit the work to the artist, publisher, or studio. Just add a simple credit line, such as Photo courtesy of USDA Economic Research Service.

Look for public domain images, historical video, musical performances, and other audio to use in your online obituary or virtual memorial. Music created with public funds in the United States, for example, is always in the public domain—the music belongs to us because we, as taxpayers, funded its creation. Other artists may release their work into the public domain to promote it or simply to share it. And speaking of free, download a free Quick-Start Guide to Online Obituary Writing here (no registration, no malware, no catch).

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but plenty of nice cold cuts are there for the taking.

Public Domain Images
Search for public domain images using Google’s awesome Advanced Image Search feature. There are a lot of options, but the most important ones are on the first and last lines. On the first line, enter a search term. On the last line, “Usage rights,” choose “Free to use or share.” Then click Search, and the search results will contain only images in the public domain. Read the fine print to see if an attribution (credit line containing the photographer’s name) is required. A few more tips:

  • File size. The file size option is useful if you need a large image (for a banner, for example) or just a high-resolution image. Keep in mind that for a website, you don’t need more than 72 dpi (more accurately known as ppi). For print, you’d need 300 dpi or more.
  • Aspect ratio. 
  • Site or domain. Let’s say you’re looking for a photo of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress your grandfather flew in the Korean War. On the Advanced Image Search form, four lines from the bottom under “Site or domain,” enter “.gov” to narrow your search to U.S. government–owned photos. Keep the usage rights as described above: “Free to use or share.”
  • File type. Choose this option to search for a specific format, such as JPG or GIF.
Public Domain Audio
The YouTube Audio Library is our pick for oyalty-free (that is, public domain) music. Narrow your search using the following parameters:

  • Genre. Select a genre, such as pop, classical, or cinematic. I chose Jazz & Blues
  • Mood. Choose a mood, such as Inspirational, Bright, or Romantic. Let’s go with Calm.
  • Instrument. Like the sound of a trumpet? So do I. Other choices include Piano, Acoustic guitar, and Synthesizer.
  • Duration. How long do you want it to last? Of course you can clip an audio track to shorten it. It’s also possible to lengthen a clip, using apps like Adobe Audition and Audacity. But save yourself the trouble, and find a track that’s long enough. Using my search parameters (Jazz & blues, Calm, Trumpet, 4:00–4:30 minutes), I find Long Stroll, by Kevin McLeod, a tune with a laid-back, lounge-y 1960s vibe.
  • Attribution. Even free music sometimes requires attribution—that is, you must use a credit line to attribute or credit the work to the artist. If you don’t want to mess with that, choose “No attribution required.” But a credit line is no big deal. Just place it at the bottom of the page. Here’s an example for the piece of music I chose:

Long Stroll, by Kevin MacLeod, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Source: Incompetech Royalty-Free Music. Artist: Incompetech.)

Public Domain Sound Effects
We also like YouTube’s free sound effects library. Let’s say I wanted to layer some voices over the loungey music I chose. I could just click the “Sound effects” tab and use the search term “conversation” or “crowd” or “talking.” I’ll go with the clip “Murmuring and talking men,” since these guys sound a little tipsy. But I could’ve chose “Crowd talking” or “Voices murmur,” which sound similar. To save several files for comparison, click the star at the right end of the line to save a clip as a favorite. When you’re finished browsing, click the Favorites tab to view your saved selections.