Vice Italy interview with the editor of the Public Domain Review
While there is a wealth of copyright-free material available online, The Public Domain Review is carving out a niche as strongly curated website with a strong editorial line. How did the PDR begin?
Myself and The Public Domain Review’s other co-founder, Jonathan Gray, have long been into digging around in the these huge online archives of digitised material – places like the Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons – mostly to find things with which to make collages. We started a little blog called Pingere to share some of the more unusual and compelling things that we stumbled across. Jonathan suggested that we turned this into a bigger project aiming to celebrate and showcase the wonderfulness of this public domain material that was out there. We took the idea to the Open Knowledge Foundation, a non-profit which promotes open access to knowledge in a variety of fields, and they helped us to secure some initial seed funding for the project. And so the Public Domain Review was born.
What was the first article you posted?
We initially focused on things which were just coming into the public domain that year. In many countries works enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the author or artist – although there are lots of weird rules and exceptions (often unnecessarily complicated!). Anyway, 2011 saw the works of Nathaniel West enter the public domain, including his most famous book Day of the Locusts. The first article was about that, and West’s relationship with Hollywood, written by Marion Meade who’d recently published a book on the subject.
What criteria do you use to choose stuff for the Review?
As the name suggests, all our content is in the ‘public domain’, so that is the first criterion. We try to focus on works that are in the public domain in most countries, which isn’t as easy as it sounds as every country has different rules. Generally it means stuff created by people who passed away before the early 1940s. The second criterion is that there are no restrictions on the reuse of the digital copies of the public domain material.
What kind of restrictions?
Well, some countries say that in order to qualify for copyright digital reproductions have to demonstrate some minimal degree of originality, and others say that there just needs to be demonstrable investment in the digitisation (the so-called “sweat of the brow” doctrine). Many big players in the world of digitisation – like Google, Microsoft, the Bridgeman Art Library, and national institutions – argue that they own rights in their digital reproductions of works that have entered the public domain, perhaps so they can sell or restrict access to them later down the line. We showcase material from institutions who have already decided to openly license their digitisations. We are also working behind the scenes to encourage more institutions to do the same and see free and open access to their holdings as part of their public mission.
But you have a strong aesthetic line as well, don’t you?
Yes of course, the material has to be interesting! We tend to go for stuff which is less well known, so rather than put up all the works of Charles Dickens (as great as they are) we’ll go instead for something toward the more unorthodox end of the cultural spectrum, e.g. a personal oracle book belonging to Napoleon, or a 19th century attempt to mathematically model human consciousness through geometric forms. I guess a sort of alternative history to the mainstream narrative, an attempt to showcase just some of the excellence and strangeness of human ideas and activity which exist ‘inbetween’ these bigger events and works about which the narrative of history is normally woven.
Is there anything you wouldn’t publish?
I guess there is some material which is perhaps a little too controversial for the virtuous pages of the PDR – such as the racier work of Thomas Rowlandson or some of the less family friendly works of the 16th century Italian printmaker Agostino Carracci. Our most risque thing to date is probably a collection of some of Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘animal locomotion’ portfolio, which included a spot of naked tennis.
It seems that authors are becoming less and less important, publishers are facing extinction, and yet the potential for users of content is ever-expanding. What do you think about the future of publishing?
It is certainly true that things are radically changing in the publishing world. Before the advent of digital technologies, publishers were essentially gatekeepers of what words were seen in the public sphere. You saw words in books and newspapers and – for many people – that was pretty much it. What you saw was the result of decisions made by a handful of people. But now this has changed. People don’t need publishing contracts to get their words seen. Words, pictures and audiovisual material can be shared and spread at virtually no cost with just a few clicks. But people still do want to read words in books. And they turn to publishers – through bookshops, the media, etc – to find new things to read. While there is DIY print-on-demand publishing, it is hard to compete with the PR and promotion of professional publishers. I don’t think publishers will become extinct. No doubt they will adapt to new markets in search for profits.
Is the internet causing works to become more detached from their authors? Is there a way in which this could be a good thing?
With the rise of digital technologies it is, no doubt, much easier for this detachment to happen. Words leave the confines of books and articles, get copied and pasted into blogs, websites and social media, are shared through illegal downloads, etc, perhaps losing proper attribution along the way. But in a way none of this is new. It is just a more accelerated version of what has happened for hundreds of years. If anything it is probably better for authors now than it was with the past – as the internet also enables people to try to check where things come from, their pedigree and provenance. In the 17th century, before there was a proper copyright law, it was common for whole books to be “stolen”, given a new title and cover, and be sold under a new author’s name.
Could this be a good thing? Well, one could argue that reuse and reworking are an essential part of the creative process. We can find brilliant examples of literary pastiche and collaging techniques in the works of writers like W.G. Sebald, where you are not sure whether he’s speaking with his own words or that of another writer (whose work he is discussing). In Sebald’s case it gives the whole piece a fluency and unity, a sense that its one voice, of humanity or history speaking. But of course Sebald’s work is protected by copyright held by his publishers or his literary estate. One wonders whether one could use his works in the same way and get away with it.
So is copyright a big negative?
No not at all – from the perspective of artists/writers copyrighting their work, in general it makes complete sense to me. This is not just about money but also about artistic control over how a work is delivered. Looking back to the past before copyright – it wasn’t just about royalties but also about reputation, about preventing or discouraging mischievous or sloppy reuse. While copyright is far from perfect – and often pretty flawed – it still offers creators a basic level of protection for the things that they have created. As an author or artist if you want something more flexible than your standard copyright license then you can combine it with things like Creative Commons licenses to say how you want others to be able to use your works.
The question of how long (or whether!) works should be copyrighted after the death of creators is an entirely different question. I think copyright laws and international agreements are currently massively skewed in favour of big publishers and record companies (often supported by well heeled lobbyist groups purporting to serve the neglected interests of famous authors and aging rock stars), and do not take sufficient account of the public domain as a positive social good: a cultural commons, free for everyone.
Have you ever had problems with a copyright claim from an author?
Well almost all of the public domain material we feature is by people who are long dead, so we haven’t (thank god!) had any direct complaints from them. We did get one take down notice on Gurideff’s Harmonium Recordings. The law can get very complex, particularly around films and sound recordings. I am not sure they were right, but we took it down all the same.
What are your plans for the future?
As well as expansion of the site with exciting new features we are also planning to break out from the internet into the real world of objects! We’re planning to produce some beautiful printed volumes with collections of images and texts curated around certain themes. We’ve wanted to do this for a while, and hopefully we’ll have time (and funds!) to finally do this next year.
You can sign up to The Public Domain Review’s wonderful newsletter here