Why I’m making my whole vintage photo collection Public Domain

This month is Public Domain Month and it has prompted me to do something that has been on my mind for some time. I have decided to change the license on my entire personal collection of vintage photographs to Public Domain:

This work has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

You can copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission.

Why do this?

I’ve been sharing my personal collection of vintage images online for about ten years, the majority of that time via my ‘whatsthatpicture’ account on Flickr. I’ve never felt comfortable applying restrictive licenses to old images that I didn’t take, and get especially frustrated when I see other similar images online claimed as ‘All rights reserved’ and often a whopping great watermark too!

At the same time I’ve started to really appreciate the value of sharing images under an open license. I’ve seen ‘my’ images used on Wikipedia, in educational textbooks, to support charitable causes, and of course in social media. I’ve also had all sorts of comments and identifications provided. Yes, sometimes I see the images shared without attribution, including on ostensibly commercial sites, but do I want to spend my life chasing people, or worse still withdraw all my images because of a few people who in the most part simply don’t understand licensing? When I have been formally approached for permission to use an image it usually works out to be far more trouble than it’s worth, so I am left thinking, why not just open everything up? (so yes, marketing company working with Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Italian restaurant in Nottingham, you really can stop bothering me claiming poverty and just use the image you wanted to!)

In a nutshell

  • I don’t feel legally or morally that I can put any restrictive license on old images that I didn’t create
  • Given that the majority of my images were taken 100 or more years ago, there’s a good chance they’re not protected by copyright anyway, and if they are, that right certainly isn’t mine to enforce
  • I get a lot of enjoyment in seeing my discoveries shared and enjoyed
  • I get a lot of valuable information contributed for many of the images I share
  • Big public collections don’t have a monopoly on the world’s cultural heritage – private collections contain real gems, often backed up by unique personal stories or research
  • I’d love to encourage others to set their images free and see the benefits

Any caveats?

  • My Flickr photostream contains a limited number of images that will not be out of copyright as they are more recent. I have shared these judiciously, typically where the original photographer is unknown and untraceable, but I cannot apply a Public Domain license to these.
  • I have a very few images online that are not from my personal collection but I have been asked to share on behalf of others.
  • Flickr doesn’t actually allow me to set a PD license on the images! To get around this I will try to add them all to a single set of all my ‘PD’ images but that will take a bit of time to go through and sort out! (at the time of writing there are about 1,600 images there)

Over to you …

I don’t claim to have an extensive or especially unique personal collection, but even so I can think of a few images that might be valued, like this album of early railway images, or these WW1 images, including some lovely stereoviews, or this album of named but unknown people waiting to be ‘claimed’. Of course one of the joys of sharing is also that people use things in places you had never even thought of, so have a browse and see what you can find.

I know of many other private collections that are real treasure troves of unusual imagery. Collectors typically gather images from a particular theme that they have a special interest and unique knowledge about. Family collections often come with rich stories attached, handed down through generations, or the owners have done extensive research to add value. But even sharing orphaned, unidentified images can lead to wonderful discoveries too, bringing life to objects that would have remained hidden from the world.

The problem is, what is online is most often under a restrictive license and no doubt just a tiny proportion of what is sitting in the world’s cupboards, drawers and shoeboxes. So I would encourage anyone who has images to share them openly and join in the fun.



This entry was posted in Old photo news, Website news and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.