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A translation fund for public domain texts

Jonathan Gray - November 2, 2011 in Free Culture, Ideas and musings, Public Domain, Public Domain Works, WG Public Domain

The following post is from Jonathan Gray, Community Coordinator at the Open Knowledge Foundation. It was originally posted on his blog.

If a text is widely known and published more than a century and a half ago, chances are that it will be freely available on the web to read and download. Every person with an internet connection has access to a vast wealth of cultural and historical material: novels and poems, essays and manifestos, constitutions and scriptures.

As well as accessing and sharing this material, the law says that anyone can translate and republish works which have entered the public domain. But translations constitute new creative works and are hence covered by copyright and related rights, which means that by default they cannot be shared online.

This is, of course, perfectly understandable. There is money to be made from producing new translations of classic works, which means publishers and translators are incentivised to assert their rights. Literary translation is a fine art: translators must unpick constellations of connotation and navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of fidelity and perspicuity as they reconstitute the work they are translating into its target language. It is natural to reward translators in the same manner we reward authors of original texts – for translations often are new literary works. Things like Seamus Heaney’s rendering of Beowulf, Baudelaire’s Edgar Allen Poe, or Schegel’s Shakespeare testify to this. So if I want to read a work in a language that I do not understand, I must go to a bookshop and buy a new translation. Such is life.

But wouldn’t it be nice if some new translations of public domain texts were freely available for people to read online? If the commercial translations were complemented with a stronger culture of translators sharing the fruits of their labour?

One could imagine this could be encouraged with a mixture of stronger norms and alternative incentives. For example, students could be encouraged to share translations made during the course of their studies. There could be more avenues for scholars and professional translators to publish works which they are unlikely to get a contract to publish or derive income from, such as shorter or more obscure works. And there could be awards, stipends or bursary funds for outstanding translations of public domain works which were freely published on the web.

At the Public Domain Review we’ve been thinking about how a literary translation fund for public domain texts might work. We’re currently thinking:

  • There could be an initial focus on short works (e.g. under 10,000 words), with a token stipend or cash prize to recognise outstanding translations.
  • It could be overseen by an advisory group of writers, scholars, translators, publishers and critics – who would help to give direction and focus to the fund, evaluate submissions and publicise it.
  • Translations would be published under a Creative Commons Attribution or Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike license and uploaded to the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg or Wikisource.
  • It could be financially supported by a mixture of cultural and academic funding bodies and augmented with sponsorship from the private sector (publishers, literary publications, technology companies, etc).

We’d like to try and launch a small fund to do this to coincide with Public Domain Day 2012. Do you have thoughts about how this could work? Know of anything like it that already exists? Or know people or bodies who might be interested in supporting this? If you have any cunning ideas, please do send me a message or leave a comment below!

Dear Internet, we need better image archives

Theodora Middleton - October 3, 2011 in External, Ideas and musings, Public Domain, WG Public Domain

The following guest post is by Nina Paley, cartoonist and blogger. Nina is a member of the OKF’s Working Group on the Public Domain.

Dear Internet,

You know what should be really easy to find online? Good quality, Public Domain vintage illustrations. You know, things like this:

I found this on Flickr, where someone claims full copyright on it. That’s copyfraud, but understandable because Flickr’s default license is full copyright (all the more reason to ignore copyright notices!). But copyfraud isn’t the main problem. The main problem is that images like this are painfully difficult to find online, especially at high resolutions (and this image is only available at medium resolution – up to 604 pixels high, which is barely usable for most purposes but higher than much of what you find online).

The images are out there – and with zillions of antique books being scanned, their vintage illustrations are being scanned right along with them. But the images are buried in the text, and often the scan quality is poor. Images should be scanned at high quality, and tagged for searchability.

Are archives ignoring the value of images?

Take the American Memory archive of the Library of Congress. Lots and lots of historical documents here, but no way for me to find an image of, say, a horse.

Most book-scanning projects focus on texts, not illustrations. Many interesting and useful illustrations are buried within these scans, uncatalogued and inaccessible. Scan quality is set for text, not illustrations, so even if one can find a choice illustration buried within, its quality is usually too low to use. is great (I love you,!) but does not have an image archive. Still images are not among their “Media Types” (which consist of Moving Images, Texts, Audio, Software, and Education). So I went spelunking through their texts, starting with “American Libraries,” and searched for something easy: “horse.” Surely I could find a nice usable etching of a horse in there somewhere. I eventually found “The Harness Horse” by Sir Walter Gilbey, from 1898.

Nice illustrations! Can I use them? Unfortunately, no. The book is downloadable as PDF and various e-publication formats, but when I try to extract the illustrations, I get a mess: horse copy and pasted Copied and pasted from Adobe Acrobat. WTF?

horse copy and pasted inverted The same image, inverted. Doesn’t work.

save image as “Save Image as…” from Acobat. This worked, except where it didn’t: part of the image is simply missing.

Clearly something is messed up here. Was it just that page? Alas, no: This sad image from another page has the same problem.

The scans have some flaws that PDFs and Photoshop can’t cope with: Screen grab of zoomed-in view from Acrobat. What looks like a blur in the PDF renders the image unusable when extracted.

These images are not useable, which is a pity because they are very nice illustrations. And they seem to be among the higher quality scans, which again isn’t saying much.

Let me add that it’s great these books are being scanned at all! That’s definitely better than losing them entirely. But as an artist, it saddens me that we’re neglecting this wealth of visual art. I’d like to see our rich visual history properly archived. Our bias favoring text over pictures is especially ironic considering how much more efficiently information is communicated to humans through images; “A picture is worth a thousand words,” or more. That’s why I’m a cartoonist, after all.

I was able to extract one clean image from the book, on page 48:

Unfortunately I can’t use this illustration for my purposes, but maybe someone else can. I’ve already gone through the trouble of finding it in a text, extracting it, and rotating it. If only there were some image archive I could upload it to at high resolution, so someone else could use it. I could tag it, to make it easier to find. I could include all kinds of useful metadata, like what book it was from and when it was published; but even if that was too bothersome, I could at least include tags like “horse,” “rider” and “engraving.” Wouldn’t it be nice if such an archive existed? Wikimedia Commons is close, although I dread uploading things there after having all my open-licensed comics deleted by an overzealous editor. But maybe they’re our best hope.

Continuing my searches on, I found this ostensibly Public Domain, vintage horse book with line illustrations. Unfortunately this is controlled by Google Books. It’s “free” to read online in Google’s reader, which doesn’t allow any image export. It also doesn’t allow me to zoom in.

All those illustrations, trapped at low resolution, unusable (even if they were tagged/catalogued, which they aren’t). This is our “Public Domain.” Who exactly is benefitting from having these 18th Century illustrations inaccessible to today’s artists?

Then there’s Dover Books. I loved Dover books growing up – they introduced me to the idea of the Public Domain. Dover reproduces vintage illustrations in books for artists and designers. Their paper books were reasonably priced, and you could use the illustrations for anything, without restriction. Browsing was free, so I would flip through the pages in the book store, and if it had what I needed, I’d buy it.

Dover is still selling books, but the prices are now relatively high, few are carried in bookstores, and they prohibit browsing online. You have to shell out $15 to find out if what you need is in the book, and how could you know? They seem to be clinging to an outdated copyright model, and rather than selling things of added value, they are simply blocking access to existing Public Domain works, in order to collect a toll.

What else has kept a good public archive of Public Domain images from existing? Some artists and archivists do make high quality scans of vintage illustrations – and keep them to themselves. I guess we could call this “image hoarding.” I assume the reasoning is, “I went through all the trouble to scan it, why should I share? Others can pay me if they want a copy.” Also there’s the “finders, keepers” reasoning: “anyone else is free to find the same illustration in another antique book, but I found this one, so it’s mine.” And so these images remain inaccessible, not part of any public archive.

Wikimedia Commons is the best public image archive I know of right now. A bit of searching led me to their “Engravings of Horses” category, which yielded some nice images. Unfortunately, many of these are not available at sufficiently high resolutions.

The maximum size of this image is 800 × 608 pixels, which limits its use. Limited image sizes and limited selection have been the biggest obstacles to my relying more on Wikimedia Commons; but it can get better. Maybe it will. It would be nice if something became the public vintage image archive I and so many other artists need. makes Public Domain Calculators available for the entire European Union

Theodora Middleton - August 15, 2011 in Bibliographic, Bibliographica, External, Featured Project, Public Domain, Public Domain Works, WG Public Domain

The following guest post is by Maarten Zeinstra from KnowledgeLand. Maarten is a member of the OKF Working Group on the Public Domain.

Works that have fallen into the public domain after their term of copyright protection has elapsed can be freely used by everybody. In theory that means that these works can be reused by anyone for any purpose which includes commercial exploitation. In theory the public domain status increases access to our shared knowledge and culture and encourages economic activities that do not take place as long as works are protected by copyright. In turn the commercial exploitation of public domain works (for example out of copyright books) has the tendency to increase their accessibility.

In practice, however, determining whether a work has passed into the public domain can prove very difficult. This is especially true when attempting to determine the public domain status of content in multiple jurisdictions. As part of the EuropeanaConnect project, Knowledgeland and the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam have developed public domain calculators to determine whether a certain work or other subject matter vested with copyright or neighbouring rights (related rights) has fallen into the public domain. These public domain calculators have been developed for 30 countries (the European Union plus Switzerland, Iceland & Norway) and are available at

Users can use the calculators (and the underlying research published at to determine the copyright status of works in all these countries. This is the first time that this question has been structurally researched across all European jurisdictions.

The results of this research of national copyright laws show a complex semi-harmonized field of legislation across Europe that makes it unnecessarily difficult to unlock the cultural, social, and economic potential of works in the public domain. Identification of works as being in the public domain needs be made easier and less resource consuming by simplifying and harmonizing rules of copyright duration and territoriality.

Outofcopyright continues to adjust and refine its calculators. It is also researching how to make calculation possible using large datasets like bibliographica, DBPedia, and the Europeana datasets on cultural objects in Europe.

We encourage everyone interested in the public domain to try the calculators, comment on them and re-use the published research. All research and other material on Outofcopyright is available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license and the software powering the calculators can be reused under the terms of the EUPL license.

The Public Domain Review has a new website!

Jonathan Gray - August 9, 2011 in Bibliographic, Free Culture, Public Domain, Public Domain Works, Texts, WG Public Domain, Working Groups

The following post is from Jonathan Gray, Community Coordinator at the Open Knowledge Foundation.

As part of our work to open up the wealth of cultural works which have entered the public domain, earlier this year we launched the Public Domain Review.

Adam Green, the Public Domain Review‘s wonderful Editor, has been hard at work over the past few weeks and the project now has a beautiful new website which you can find here:

In addition to weekly articles about interesting or obscure public domain works, there are now curated collections of texts, images, audio and film material – hand-picked from various online sources.

If you’re interested in receiving the Public Domain Review you can sign up to receive it in your inbox. If you like the project, you can also become a supporter.

Announcing… Text Camp 2011

Theodora Middleton - July 25, 2011 in Events, Open Shakespeare, Public Domain, Public Domain Works, WG Cultural Heritage, WG Humanities, WG Public Domain, Workshop

The following post is from James Harriman-Smith, coordinator of the OKF’s Open Literature Working Group, and Lecteur at the ENS de Lyon.

The OKF’s first ever ‘Text Camp’ hopes to bring together many different people, all interested in the relationship between digital technologies and literature, with a strong focus on the creation of open knowledge.

When? 13th August 2011, 10am – 6pm
Where? London – Event Location TBA.

During the day, we hope to create, discuss and maybe even publish ‘open literature’, which is to say that we will work on both texts that are in (and about) the public domain, and on the open-source tools for the analysis and appreciation of these works.

Planned activities include:

  • Discussion and/or hacking of 2,231 texts recently released from Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) with the help of the Text Creation Partnership
  • Coming up with ideas for and perhaps composing a web based narrative.
  • Writing a guide to creative commons and related licenses as regards literary productions.
  • Working out how to build an online community around a work of literature, with advice on the process of receiving edits to one’s own online work.
  • And, of course, much much more…

Why not suggest your own ideas? or take a look at the wiki for the event?

Free! Music! Contest – fewer choices, more freedom

Theodora Middleton - July 13, 2011 in External, Free Culture, Legal, Open Standards, WG Open Licensing, WG Public Domain

The following guest post is by Christian Hufgard, chairman of Musikpiraten, and member of the OKF’s Working Group on the Public Domain.

The Free! Music! Contest is a contest for bands and artists releasing their songs under a creative commons license. In its third year the focus is set on enabling remixes – and freeness. Unlike the last two times, this year only cc-by and cc-by-sa licenses are allowed to be used. Why did the organizers decided to reduce the choices? Most of the songs that won the last two years used nc- or nd-licenses, so it is pretty likely that the change will mean fewer participants.

What is wrong with nc (non-commercial) and nd (no drivatives)? Users are allowed to distribute the music and, if a song is not nd-licensed, to create derivative works. But due to the nature of music, the derivatives are mainly fan-made videos. Creating a remix based on a fully mixed song is much more complex and reduces the possibilities. There are some great artists out there like Girl Talk that mash up songs, but this is not what “derivative work” means: these mashups are in most countries covered by fair use rules. On the other hand commercial websites can get in trouble for license violations if they promote nc music. To sum up: nc- and nd-license are free as in “free beer”. You are allowed to consume and share art, but that’s it. In this way, the contest was more a “Shareable Music Contest”. Not a very sexy name…

One option could have been to ban nc- and nd-licenses. But this would not have solved the problem of creating derivative works. To solve this, an additional rule was introduced: A single track from every song has to be released through the creative commons remix portal This way the contest is truly a “Free! Music! Contest”. The art is not only shareable but also remixable and free for all uses – as long as the author and the license are mentioned.

But artists releasing their work under creative commons are pretty afraid of freedom. They fear that others might profit from their work without getting something in return. To work around that fear, the registered song does not have to be licensed cc-by or cc-by-sa: the rule only applies if a song is chosen for publication on the CD, which is to say that it is one of the contest’s winners.

Reducing the artists’ choice of the license, the contest achieves more freedom for everybody else.

Help to map the public domain around the world!

Jonathan Gray - May 10, 2011 in Bibliographic, Join us, OKI Projects, Open Data, Open Knowledge Foundation, Public Domain, Public Domain Works, WG Public Domain, Working Groups

The following post is from Jonathan Gray, Community Coordinator at the Open Knowledge Foundation.

We’re currently looking for more people to help map copyright law in countries around the world – so we can make it easier for people to find and reuse works which have entered the public domain.

We’re particularly keen to contact law students, whether at graduate or undergraduate level. Hence if you know people who are studying or teaching at law schools we’d be eternally grateful if you could help to pass this note on to them!


> The Open Knowledge Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting open knowledge in all its forms – from sonnets to statistics, genes to geodata. This includes work to make it easier for people to find and reuse works which have entered the public domain in their country.

> We are currently seeking volunteers to help us to develop and review a set of Public Domain Calculators for countries around the world. These help people determine whether or not a given work is still protected by copyright (to find out more see our 5 minute film!). We want to combine these calculators with large collections of data about works to enable people to find out which works are in the public domain in their country and enable them to find, download and share copies of these works.

> There are currently 15 completed flowcharts (USA, Canada, UK, Spain and Norway), one of which has already been implemented into code (UK). We’ve got a growing network of legal experts, developers and advocates in over 30 countries. We want to build on this to create and review calculators for more countries around the world.

> If you’re interested in helping out, please email and – or join our mailing list and introduce yourself at: .

The Public Domain Calculators code is now in a separate library

Jonathan Gray - March 5, 2011 in Bibliographic, OKI Projects, Open Data, Public Domain, Public Domain Works, WG Public Domain, Working Groups

The following post is from Jonathan Gray, Community Coordinator at the Open Knowledge Foundation.

As many of you will know, the Public Domain Calculators aim to make it easier to find out which works are in the public domain in a given jurisdiction. There are two main parts of the project:

  1. A collection of flowcharts, mapping copyright laws in different countries
  2. A library of code (part of

Recently we’ve been doing a bit of work to make the Public Domain Calculator code into a standalone library that can be integrated into lots of different software packages and services. The library has been stripped down of all the code from and is now available at:

Our long-term vision is to turn the Public Domain Calculators into a code library which can be plugged into different software or websites that interface with a variety of archives, repositories, library catalogues, and so on. Because all of the code and content is open, all of the legal reseach can be peer reviewed and the algorithms can be optimised and improved.

If you’re interested in getting involved, please visit:

If you want to find out more you can also watch our short video about the project!

Project Gutenberg adds their 40,000th free eBook!

Guest - March 2, 2011 in External, News, Public Domain, WG Public Domain

The following guest post is from Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg and member of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Working Group on the Public Domain

It’s The Year of the eBook!

Project Gutenberg, the granddaddy of all eBook libraries, announced today they have put number 40,000 of internally produced free eBooks online as of March 1st.

This raises their grand total to 100,000, as they receive a number of eBooks from other producers worldwide. These figures even subtract 15,000 for various duplications.

If you have a Kindle, set your browser to to partake of these eBooks free of charge. If you have an iPad just search the various book features for “Project Gutenberg.”

Before buying an eReader you might want to check that the Project Gutenberg library is available to get you started on the path to building your own collection for free.

People who are already comfortable with browsers can surf to the following sites and download Gutenberg’s eBooks: and

The first site has most of the 40,000 eBooks created from the Project Gutenberg volunteers around the world and has eBooks in 60 languages in a variety of formats, and has a site that’s very user friendly to cellphones, iPods, etc. The second site has eBooks in .pdf format, 100+ languages are represented, and also includes some 15,000 from those at the first site.

You can also do searches for Project Gutenberg of Canada, Australia and Europe, for even more free eBooks.

This comes just in time for “Read An eBook Week,” running from March 6-12!!!

By the way, the 40,000th eBook was pretty much a tie of a handful of books coming in from Canada, another coming in from Romania, and yet another coming from Poland. However, the Canadians seem to have ultimately edged everyone out with:

Neighbours (1922) (Novel. In rural Canada, your neighbours are important.), by Robert James Campbell Stead (1880-1959), Canadian Poet and Novelist.

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