Drawing from the Public Domain

An old picture of a crowd of people, altered with an orange halftone

I'm a staunch advocate for the public domain. It is a deep well of inspiration and influence for most of the cultural objects that humanity produces. Works in the public domain can be consumed, copied, remixed, and performed by anyone, for any purpose, without restriction.

For most of humanity's history, works needed to be registered in order to be copyrighted, and even then, a copyright would only last a short time. Copyrights grant authors exclusive rights over copies, licenses, and derivatives of their work — since they create scarcity, they also create wealth and thus they can be valuable properties.

In the 20th century, copyright terms were lengthened considerably in the United States and works were deemed copyrighted as soon as they were "fixed in any tangible medium" (17 U.S.C. § 102). In other words, works no longer needed to be registered to enjoy copyright protections.

For individual authors and artists, the copyright extensions and automatic registration are a boon: there are no "gotchas" or loopholes with regard to the protection of our work. For humanity as a whole though, I'd argue that these changes to copyright law have been detrimental: as a result, most of the cultural output of society has an owner.

Culture is what gives shape and life to our society. The idea that it is owned should give us as much pause as someone claiming to own the air we breathe. Unfortunately, record companies, movie studios, book publishers, and other large entities have a vested interest in keeping copyright law as it is, or even lengthening the terms further.

Perhaps as a response to the current state of copyrighted works, many public and private institutions have taken up the task of digitizing works in their collections that are in the public domain so people can easily find them and use them in their own work. Here are a few of the ones I've found most useful:

  • The Commons on Flickr: the depth and breadth of public domain images available on Flickr is truly incredible, and they provide search capabilities by keyword, orientation, color, date, etc. Besides The Commons, Flickr's database of user-uploaded images can also be searched by license, which widens the pool even more.
  • New York Public Library: they just released an excellent visualization tool for browsing their collection of 187K public domain images and it is truly a sight to behold.
  • Library of Congress: their Prints & Photographs Catalog is quite extensive and keyword searchable. The thumbnails are pretty small compared to the ones you get on Flickr, but it's still an important resource because of its sheer scale.
  • Digital Public Library of America: I only recently discovered this one and it suffers from an unintuitive interface and small thumbnails, but it links the resources of many libraries across the United States and allows you to search by time and location.

Copyrights are automatic so in many cases works are copyrighted even though we don't intend them to be. For this website, I'd like to reverse that position:

Unless otherwise noted, all work by cuibonobo created on this website is dedicated to the public domain.

This means you may copy, modify, distribute, and perform any of the materials you find here without asking for permission.

With all the benefit that I get from the public domain, it's the least I can do.