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NYPL Adds Public Domain Images to Digital Collections for Reuse by Artists

Posted by Rebecca Blake on February 02, 2016

The New York Public Library (NYPL) has added over 674,000 public domain images to their on online database of digital collections. The public domain database includes prints, photographs, maps, video, and manuscripts, which can be downloaded in high resolution. The NYPL statements on the collection indicate that the materials are out-of-copyright, and the public is invited to “go forth and reuse!”. However, a closer look at the NYPL selection process indicates that some images may not be public domain, or may have additional rights assigned, and artists are cautioned to proceed carefully before using the images.

The collection was developed with the NYPL Labs, an interdisciplinary team within the library with the mission of positioning the Library’s collections for the digital age. The NYPL Digital Collections overall provide a great resource of research, educational, and reference material for designers and illustrators. Visitors to the Collections can search by keyword, scroll through recently uploaded items, or browse collections such as Fashion, Nature, For Designers, or Book Arts and Illustrations. For illustrators needing reference material for historic projects, for example, illustrations of 1930s era farm life, the search features and collections can be a tremendous aid. To select for public domain images within a collection, the user checks the “Show Only Public Domain” filter selection. This filters for only images the NYPL believes are out-of-copyright.

NYPL Public Domain filter selection

Above: When in a collection, be sure to select for only public domain images to view images the NYPL has flagged as available for reuse.

While the newly added materials are described as “public domain” (items for which the coyright has expired or doesn't exist), the Library doesn’t commit to that legal designation. The Library legal team utilizes services such as reverse image searches and the Catalog of Copyright Entries to research the copyright status of items before release. However, because of changes in US copyright law, and the lack of provenance on many images (in particular photos), the NYPL demurs to definitively state the items are public domain. Instead, their blog post on the public domain additions clarifies that the legal team was unable to find copyrights to the items, and states that the Library is unable “to guarantee that we have not made a mistake in either the facts or the law.” The rights statement on the public domain images reads “We believe that this item has no known US copyright restrictions.” The statement also warns that the items may be additionally restricted: “The item may be subject to rights of privacy, rights of publicity and other restrictions.”

NYPL public domain image rights statement

In celebration of the release, the Library is inviting the public to apply for a “Remix Residency.” The NYPL Labs is accepting proposals to reuse and remix from the collection to create “transformative, interesting, beautiful new uses of our digital collections.” As examples of such uses, they’ve provided links to sample NYPL public domain remixes, such as “Navigating the Green Book,” an exploration of travel guides that showed restaurants, hotels, and other establishments open to African Americans during the age of segregation. NYPL Labs is accepting proposals through the end of February. Recipients of the residency will receive a $2,000 stipend, consultation with the Lab’s staff and curators, and workspace in the NYPL research rooms.

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