Yale to Put Public-Domain Works Online

June 2, 2011

The “Babbage” blog at The Economist site has a  post reporting  that Yale University will make available online a collection of high-resolution digital images of those works from its extensive collections that are in the public domain.

In an announcement on May 10th, the university says its libraries, museums and archives will provide free universal access to high-resolution digitisations of holdings in the public domain. A teaser in the shape of 250,000 images (in low resolution) from its central catalog of 1.5m is already available.

This is welcome news.  Yale’s libraries contain ~ 10 million books, as well as many other documents.  The University’s natural history museum has a collection of ~12 million specimens.   Yale does not yet know exactly how many of these works are in the public domain, but this step will surely make many more works available to anyone with an Internet connection.

The images themselves, being newly produced, are not in the public domain, but they will be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, which grants permission to copy, modify, and redistribute the work, as long as the original source is credited.  (This blog is licensed under a similar Creative Commons license — see the “Legal Stuff” sidebar.)

As “Babbage” points out, this step, though significant and welcome, is not the first of its kind.  Google has had an on-going project for some time to scan books and make the resulting images available.   Although there has been come controversy over just how Google should handle works that are currently protected by copyright, Google Books already has about one million  public domain titles available.  The Flickr photo sharing site has a large collection of images in the Commons, provided by a number of institutions, including the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the National Library of Scotland.  Several other universities have made parts of their collections available on the Internet, and Google also has its Art Project, which I wrote about in February, that is making the collections of some of the world’s greatest art museums available online.

The article also mentions that some people have concerns that making this material easily accessible may lead to undesirable results.

Most controversially, without legal recourse museum pieces and specimens from an earlier age risk being travestied in unseemly ways.

That sort of thing — drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa, or something even more tasteless — is bound to happen.  But it seems to me that is a very small price to pay to make our common cultural heritage available to a much wider audience.


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