Copyright Industry

The British Library Releases Over 1 Million Images for Public Use

British Museum Public Domain

A few weeks ago, the Oxford’s Bodleian Library released a highly detailed digitized version of  a 550 year old copy of the Gutenberg Bible along with a number of other ancient bibles.  Now, the British Library has released over a million images from a collection of 17th, 18th and 19th century books into the public domain. All of these images had been digitized by Microsoft and gifted to the British Library.

According to the British Library Press release, the images are being made available for anyone to use, remix or repurpose.  The release says, “the images themselves cover a startling mix of subjects: There are maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colorful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and so much more that even we are not aware of.”

The British Library has released over a million images onto Flickr Commons for anyone to use, remix and repurpose.

What is interesting about this release is that the British Library really has little information about the author’s or their histories of the images.  So they are turning to the public for help in the form of a crowdsourcing project. The Library will be releasing online tools that will make it easier to gather and input information so the public at large can gain insights and understanding of these images.  When they are released you will find information on them at the Flickr Commons site hosting the works.

One side note: there has been some discussion as to whether these works were already in the Public Domain, being too old to be protected by copyright. It may be that the British Library is just saying that the scans were privately held and are now being made available, but since many organizations claim that scans of a work can be copyrighted, it is hard to know.

However, it is unlikely that the British Library or Microsoft owned copyright in the scans. In order for a work to be copyrighted, it must be original.  Taking photographs or scans of someone else’s two-dimensional work is generally not original.  Photos of three-dimensional objects differ in that they have some modicum of creativity, such as angle of the shot or lighting choices.  In that case, the photo itself can garner copyright protection but that does not give copyright protection for the work within the photographs. In this situation, the scans were attempting to reproduce the original works as authentically as possible, without any creativity.  There may be a lot of work involved, but hard work does not rise to the level of copyright protection.

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About the author

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art and law. Should you have any questions on Intellectual Property contact him at [email protected] His photography can be seen online at or on display at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City.

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