public domain mark

For Faithful Digital Reproductions of Public Domain Works Use CC0

Jane Park, January 23rd, 2015

We’re taking part in Copyright Week, a series of actions and discussions supporting key principles that should guide copyright policy. Every day this week, various groups are taking on different elements of the law, and addressing what’s at stake, and what we need to do to make sure that copyright promotes creativity and innovation.

Today’s topic is the “Public Domain.” The public domain is our cultural commons and a public trust. Copyright policy should seek to promote, and not diminish, this crucial resource.


Creative Commons has long upheld that faithful digital reproductions of works in the public domain are also in the public domain, adhering to the U.S. District Court ruling of Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. that “exact photographic copies of public domain images could not be protected by copyright in the United States because the copies lack originality” 1. Though this ruling is not a binding precedent, it remains highly influential as a legal ruling in the U.S. and elsewhere. Its real world applicability is less well-known. This is why, where possible, we recommend that institutions, especially those curating and providing access to public domain works of cultural heritage, use the CC0 public domain dedication for their digital reproductions where there might be any element of originality that might give rise to doubt.

Creative Commons currently offers two public domain tools, CC0 and the Public Domain Mark, which can be confused with each other but are very different tools. CC0, like the CC licenses, is a legally operable tool backed by a legal document that we like to call the legal code layer of our tools. Because it is legally operable, copyright owners may use it to relinquish their copyright and related rights in a work, effectively placing that work into the public domain. Where it is not legally possible to relinquish copyright, the tool defaults to CC BY without attribution or any other conditions (CC BY is the most liberal license on the spectrum of CC licenses). The Public Domain Mark, on the other hand, is not a legally operable tool, but merely a standard label that one may place on a work to indicate that its copyright has expired or is otherwise in the public domain worldwide. You can read more about both of these tools here.

We recommend using CC0 for digital reproductions of public domain works where there is reason for users to be concerned that the reproduction itself is subject to copyright. If nothing else, it clearly signals to users that the institution is proactively relinquishing any copyrights they may have in a digital reproduction, furthering its mission to provide greater public access to works of cultural heritage. From the institution’s standpoint, they are not making any guarantees about the public domain work itself, but removing any doubt for the user around any element of originality they may have in the digital reproduction.

Here are a few great cases of institutions committed to strengthening and growing our public domain.

Rijksmuseum

The Rijskmuseum is the Dutch National Museum in the The Netherlands, founded in 1800, that contains many of the original artworks of European masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, in addition to high resolution images of these original artworks. For 10 years, from 2003-2013, much of the physical museum — including 1 million physical items — was closed for renovations. During this period, the museum’s marketing department pushed for the release of its high resolution images of public domain works in order to keep the public engaged throughout the renovation period and as a way to extend the reach of the museum beyond its limited physical showcase. They released 150,000 high resolution images (each as large as 200 MB) into the public domain using CC0. They abided by the principle of unrestricted access to the digital public domain; as in the U.S., faithful digital reproductions of public domain works are considered public domain in Europe. After the release, the museum saw many benefits, including international exposure for the museum, especially during a time when much of the physical museum was closed; new audiences with developers, designers, and related creative industries; and an increase in revenue made from public domain image sales. For more details, see Tim’s post which links to the in-depth case study.

Statens Museum for Kunst

The Statens Museum for Kunst, aka the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen, joined the Google Art Project in 2011. At this point, they realized they were giving use rights of images to a private company and could no longer justify charging the public for the same rights. As part of a pilot project, they initially released 100 educational videos and 160 high resolution image files (each as large as 440 MB) of Danish, Nordic and European public domain art under CC BY. Afterwards, they moved to CC0 for their images. Since their release, SMK’s images and videos have been featured on Wikipedia. SMK staff found that their understanding of quality and control changed significantly after releasing the images: “[Our public domain collections] don’t belong to us; they belong to the public. Free access ensures that our collections continue to be relevant to users now and in the future. We’re here to look after them and make them available and useful to the public. Use = value.” Read the case study contributed directly by museum staff.

New York Public Library

The New York Public Library has long been the haven of researchers and bibliophiles alike. Map lovers can join the group with NYPL’s open access maps initiative which has digitized and released more than 20,000 digital reproductions of cartographic works in the public domain. In the Lionel Pincus & Princess Firyal Map Division’s own words, “To the extent that some jurisdictions grant NYPL an additional copyright in the digital reproductions of these maps, NYPL is distributing these images under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.” In addition to public domain maps, NYPL has also used CC0 to dedicate 1 million of its bibliographic metadata records into the public domain.

Europeana

We want to end the post on Europeana, the digital library for all of Europe and a model for libraries in rights information mark-up. Europeana has identified more than 16.5 million digital objects as being in the public domain (via CC0 or the Public Domain Mark) or under one of the CC licenses, in addition to dedicating 30 million metadata records to the public domain using CC0. Users can browse and search by re-use rights — including all six CC licenses and both public domain tools.

These four cases exemplify only a few institutions that are working to preserve our public domain. For uses of CC0 specific to data, see and add to our wiki page. For more great uses of CC tools and licenses by cultural heritage institutions, check out these slides and add to our wiki page tracking uses by GLAM institutions (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums).

Have a great use case to share about the public domain? Leave us a note in the comments.

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Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online by the Open Knowledge Foundation

Jane Park, January 25th, 2012

The Open Knowledge Foundation has published a nifty guide on the basics of Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online. You can skim the guide in well under ten minutes, and it includes useful links and accompanying descriptions to online collections where PD works can be found, including Europeana, the Internet Archive, and Project Gutenberg. It also contains quite a few references to Creative Commons and succinct explanations of the relevant CC tools, such as the Public Domain Mark and the CC0 Public Domain Dedication. The guide, like all articles at The Public Domain Review, is available for reuse under CC BY.


Bibliotheca Buloviana (Ausschnitt) / Georg Daniel Heumann / Public Domain

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Improving Access to the Public Domain: the Public Domain Mark

Diane Peters, October 11th, 2010

Today, Creative Commons announces the release of its Public Domain Mark, a tool that enables works free of known copyright restrictions to be labeled in a way that allows them to be easily discovered over the Internet. The Public Domain Mark, to be used for marking works already free of copyright, complements Creative Commons’ CC0 public domain dedication, which enables authors to relinquish their rights prior to the expiration of copyright.

“The Public Domain Mark is a further step on the path towards making the promise of a digital public domain a reality,” said Michael Carroll, a founding board member of Creative Commons and a law professor at American University.

Europeana—Europe’s digital library, museum and archive—is the first major adopter of the Public Domain Mark. Europeana estimates that by mid-2011, the Public Domain Mark will be used in connection with millions of out-of-copyright works made available through its portal.

“An important part of our mandate is to ensure that digitized works made available through Europeana are properly labeled with rights information, including when a work is free of known copyright restrictions so that teachers, students and others can freely use it in their work, changing it and remixing it as they wish,” noted Jill Cousins, Executive Director of Europeana.

The Public Domain Mark in its current form is intended for use with works that are free of known copyright around the world, primarily old works that are beyond the reach of copyright in all jurisdictions. We have already started mapping the next phases of our public domain work, which will look at ways to identify and mark works that are in the public domain in a limited number of countries.

A final note about design. We took this opportunity to revise the CC0 deed, to align it more closely with the Public Domain Mark deed. We think the design changes will help everyone recognize the difference between our licenses, which apply to works restricted by copyright, and our public domain tools.

For more information, read the full press release.

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Marking and Tagging the Public Domain: An Invitation to Comment

Diane Peters, August 6th, 2010

Almost 1½ years have passed since we launched CC0 v1.0, our public domain waiver that allows rights holders to place a work as nearly as possible into the public domain, worldwide, prior to the expiration of copyright. CC0 has proven a valuable tool for governments, scientists, data providers, providers of bibliographic data, and many others throughout world. At the time we published CC0, we made note of a second public domain tool under development — a tool that would make it easy for people to tag and find content already in the public domain.

We are publishing today for comment our new Public Domain Mark, a tool that allows works already in the public domain to be marked and tagged in a way that clearly communicates the work’s PD status, and allows it to be easily discoverable. The PDM is not a legal instrument like CC0 or our licenses — it can only be used to label a work with information about its public domain copyright status, not change a work’s current status under copyright. However, just like CC0 and our licenses, PDM has a metadata-supported deed and is machine readable, allowing works tagged with PDM to be findable on the Internet. (Please note that the example used on the sample deed is purely hypothetical at the moment.)

We are also releasing for public comment general purpose norms — voluntary guidelines or “pleases” that providers and curators of PD materials may request be followed when a PD work they have marked is thereafter used by others. Our PDM deed as well as an upcoming enhanced CC0 deed will support norms in addition to citation metadata, which will allow a user to easily cite the author or provider of the work through copy-paste HTML.

The public comment period will close on Wednesday, August 18th. Why so short? For starters, PDM is not a legal tool in the same sense our licenses and CC0 are legally operative — no legal rights are being surrendered or affected, and there is no accompanying legal code to finesse. Just as importantly, however, we believe that having the mark used soon rather than later will allow early adopters to provide us with invaluable feedback on actual implementations, which will allow us to improve the marking tool in the future.

The primary venue for submitting comments and discussing the tool is the cc-licenses mailing list. We look forward to hearing from you!

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