The Public Domain Review Show You History's Best Out-of-Copyright Art
Feb 18 2013
All works of art eventually fall out of copyright. The laws surrounding the topic vary from country to country and case to case, but the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, for example, are all out of copyright and in the public domain, meaning you could technically hire an orchestra, re-record any piece of their music and use it to soundtrack your student film. Nobody's done it yet because it would be a very expensive, selfless thing to do, but the option's there for any philanthropic millionaire with a taste for three-hour, existentialist ruminations on the self.
What people have started to do is collate out-of-copyright works online, providing the world with an accessible alley to explore how some of the most interesting and formative parts of our culture existed centuries before Tumblr and Spotify were ever dreamed up by bored coding graduates. The Public Domain Review is arguably doing the best job at it so far – carving out a niche as a beautifully curated website with a solid editorial line. I spoke to co-founder Adam Green about copyright, publishing houses and the pornographic engravings of the 1500s.
An illustration from the Six Voyages of John Baptista Tavernier (1678).
VICE: Hi Adam. Tell me how the PDR began.
Adam Green: Myself and the PDR’s other co-founder, Jonathan Gray, have long been into digging around in the these huge online archives of digitised material, mostly to find things to make collages with. We started a blog to share some of the more compelling things we came across, then Jonathan suggested we turn it into a bigger project to showcase the wonderfulness of all this public domain material. The Open Knowledge Foundation helped us secure some funding, and here we are.
What was the first article you posted?
We initially focused on things that were 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, and 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's 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 re-use of the digital copies of the public domain material.
What kind of restrictions?
Well, some countries say that digital reproductions have to demonstrate a minimal degree of originality, others say that there just needs to be demonstrable investment in the digitisation. Many big players in the world of digitisation – Google, Microsoft, the Bridgeman Art Library – argue that they own rights in their digital reproductions of public domain works, perhaps so they can sell or restrict access to them later down the line. We showcase material from institutions that have already decided to openly license their digitisations. We're 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.
And you have a strong aesthetic line, as well.
Yes, the material has to be interesting, of course. We tend to go for stuff that's less well-known, so rather than put up all the works of Charles Dickens, we’ll go for something toward the more unorthodox end of the cultural spectrum instead. For instance, 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 "in-between" these big events and works about which history is normally woven.
Is there anything you wouldn’t publish?
I guess there's some material that's perhaps a little too controversial for the virtuous pages of the PDR. The racier work of Thomas Rowlandson or some of the less family-friendly works of the 16th century Italian printmaker Agostino Carracci, for example. Our most risqué thing to date is probably a collection of some of Eadweard Muybridge’s "Animal Locomotion" portfolio, which included a spot of naked tennis.
What do you think about the future of publishing?
Things are radically changing and, most notably, in that publishers essentially used to be the gatekeepers of which words went out into the public sphere, but that's all changed; people don't need publishing contracts to get their words seen. But people do still want to read words in books. And they turn to publishers – through bookshops, the media and that kind of thing – to find new things to read. While there is DIY, print-on-demand publishing, it's 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?
Yes, it's 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's probably better for authors now than it was in the past, as the internet enables people 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.
Can literary recycling ever be a good thing?
You could argue that reuse and reworking are an essential part of the creative process. There are brilliant examples of literary pastiche in the works of writers like WG Sebald, where you're not sure whether he’s speaking with his own words or that of another writer whose work he's 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.
Do you think copyright is a negative?
No, not at all. Artists and writers copyrighting their work makes complete sense to me. It isn't just about money, but also about artistic control over how a work is delivered. 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.
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 ageing rock stars – and don't 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 had any direct complaints from them, thank god. We did get one take down notice on Gurideff’s Harmonium Recordings. The law can get very complex, particularly around films and sound recordings, and I'm not sure they were right, but we took it down all the same.
What are your plans for the future of the site?
We're hoping to expand with exciting new features and planning on breaking out from the internet into the real world. We’re looking into producing some beautiful printed volumes with collections of images and texts curated around certain themes. We’ve wanted to do that for a while and hopefully we’ll have time and funds to finally do it this next year.
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