The World's Largest Public Domain Media Search Engine

Why We Built

01/24/17 09:00:00

The Problem

The Internet is great for many reasons, including free stuff you can get: news, books, images, music, and all the things that feed your creativity and your soul. I am a visual person and love vintage photographs. In 2007, while babysitting and working from home, I bought a large photo frame and started searching for historical images online to play non-stop 24/7. I love this stuff. So I found tens of thousands of astonishing images of planes, rockets, the Moon, cars, tanks, guns, sports, wars, fashion, waterskiing, and more.

I've learned that I can't post all those images online if I care about the law. OK. They still play on that obsolete photo frame in my kitchen. Now in 2017, same as in 2007, I can't legally share those images online.

Wait! Many things changed since 2007 - we have image boards, Instagram, and sites like Pinterest. But nothing has changed in regard to copyright law... I wonder how Pinterest operates in terms of copyright.

The Legal Problem

Copyright law may charitably be described as unclear. Setting Pinterest aside, there are much more fundamental issues. Here are just two:

1. Whether or not a library that produced a digital copy of an object can claim copyright on this copy?

2. Whether or not a library or a company that produced a digital copy of an object can claim that the object is free of copyright restrictions?

The Legal Answer

The first question is in fact closely related to a question: “Is there a difference between claiming the copyright for an image of the US Declaration of Independence by a US newspaper and claiming copyright for photographs of public domain works (e.g. the scans of postcards from the 1900s)?” The question of whether or not you can claim a copyright on a digital copy of public domain work is a legitimate one. The answer to this question can be found in the Bridgeman v. Corel judgment that argued that faithful copies of public domain works did not warrant their own copyright protection. Moreover, it should be said that libraries and archives should respect the public’s interest in public domain material to avoid much of the criticism that many museums have received.

Read more on this topic herehere, and here.

Our answer to the Second question is: I think 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”. Our view on this is identical to the view of folks from Creative Commons.

The School Problem

My daughter is 10 years old now: remember, it started in 2007, and she now loves the old photos and history (that was the purpose of this, initially). So now she wants to share the images she loves in class, and make some fancy & creative things like a slideshow, with some funny soundtrack and a video or two from YouTube. OK. We have a Fair Use exemption for this. Nyet Problem/No Problem?

Wait a minute!

The U.S. copyright law Fair Use exemption is quite complicated (ha-ha) as well, even for use in class only, not talking about online! In a non-profit (sic!) educational (sic!) environment, you can legally use No more than 5 images by a single artist or photographer can be used. No more than 15 images or 10 percent of a collection (whichever is less) may be used.

Video: Must be a legal copy, not bootleg or a home recording; Must be used in a classroom or nonprofit environment "dedicated to face-to-face instruction.", not online! Use should be instructional, not for entertainment or reward. Copying is OK only if "replacements are unavailable at a fair price or in a viable format". How would I know?

Music: Can be reproduced only if up to 10 percent of a composition; Should be performed and displayed as part of a multimedia program produced by educators or students. A maximum of 30 seconds per musical composition may be used. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

Public Domain Problem

OK. Forget about Copyrighted stuff. It's the 21st century, and we have a public domain! Wikimedia, the Library of Congress, The Internet Archive, and so on are all public domain repositories. Public Domain is great! It is all free to use! Or is it?

I looked at Wikimedia, the file vault for Wikipedia... and instead of no restrictions in 9/10 of cases I find:

So, just give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. Fine, so I tell my 10-year-old daughter who wants to produce an online slideshow of 100 images that all she has to do is to feature a Star-Wars-like (clickable!) list of credits and double it with the list of links to the license. Just 200 links at the end. Nothing can be easier and more fun, right? Meh.

Pinterest Problem

Those smarties at Pinterest should know something I don't. So I just tell my daughter to pin to a board and share. It's that easy. Pinterest does not ask users to consider permissions before each "pin," aiming to make the user experience seamless. Otherwise, how is it legal to pin anything from anywhere?

But wait... how is sharing a picture on Pinterest any different than on other social networks? According to Pinterest's Terms of Use, however, "You acknowledge and agree that you are solely responsible for all Member Content that you make available through the Site, Application, and Services." So it's my responsibility to get a copyright owner's permission prior to posting anything.

Pinterest places copyright responsibility on users. Pinterest offloads legal responsibility onto ME.

The flaw in this legal logic is that the images remain on Pinterest's site, even if a user has curated them into a personal collection. Pinterest would have a hard time defending itself by forcing liability onto a user.

Public Domain Resources

I still need to help my daughter. There is a huge mass of public domain media available. What about the Library of Congress, the National Archive, and Creative Commons on Flickr? Should I tell my daughter to go and look for the stuff for her project there? And where exactly? So I looked at their websites before sending her there.

The first thing I saw on Flickr is this:

The first thing you see on when you search is:

The first thing you see on after you type in the search bar is:

Well, no 10-year-old kid can use it. Period. Unfortunately, this is a dead end. End of story. Or is it?

The Solution

"If you want a thing done well, do it yourself"

Great idea! So my partner and I founded GetArchive and built PICRYL - the largest search engine for public domain images, documents, music, and videos. PICRYL makes millions of public domain media objects from the Library of Congress, NASA, the Internet Archive, and hundreds of other sources easily accessible in one place. PICRYL is an educational tool and a photo frame. Soon, it will become a publishing platform for anyone to share, travel back in time, and explore places, witness historical events.

Meanwhile, share collections, embed them in your blogs or websites, and download high-resolution images for commercial and non-commercial, online and printed, for free, without any restrictions. You can decide to give credits to PICRYL where appropriate or not - it is up to you. Enjoy!

There is so much GetArchive can do to make our product better, and our marketing faster, and so much development we must accelerate: new features, user accounts, media production tools, better UI, and more.