The Presentation of Sources and Rights Labelling Gets a Big Overhaul

October 5, 2023

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Screenshot of a portion of the new sources table when sorted by number of posts.

Transparency around the sourcing of our public domain content, and what rights of reuse might be attached by the source institutions, has always been a central part of The Public Domain Review project. That’s why for the last six months we’ve been busy working on a whole raft of important changes to make these aspects of the site even better. We are really excited to finally share these changes with you all.

The goal of these efforts is essentially twofold: i) to make it easier to navigate the rich but complex terrain that is the public domain, and ii) to champion those institutions that share public domain works in an open way online. Both of these are really about empowerment: to empower visitors with confidence to reuse out-of-copyright works, and to empower institutions to open up such works in the knowledge they’ll be celebrated for doing so.

A brief tour of the changes and new features...

Making transparent how institutions share public domain works

We’ve paired each source institution to a set of info relating to how they share public domain works online.

  • We’ve identified how they communicate rights relating to digital copies of public domain works — be that through explicit licences or vaguer intimations.
  • Based on this, we’ve assigned each source a “rights summary” category which summarises their approach and how it relates to reusability.
  • We’ve also identified, where relevant and available, the page on a source’s website that details their rights policy for public domain works.

We don't assert any rights ourselves to these works, but rather simply provide a window onto what's been communicated by the source. (This approach is also why, in the rights summaries, we don't ourselves employ the great schemas laid out by organisations like Creative Commons and Rights Statements).

Giving each institution an “open ranking” score

Using this information, we’ve given each institution our own “open ranking” score. At the top end are those that adopt clear statements communicating unrestricted reuse of public domain works, and, where relevant, offer high-resolution downloads. Toward the bottom end are institutions that offer more restrictive conditions on reuse. (Our logic is broadly reflected in Creative Commons’ scale of openness.) The aim here is to celebrate and acknowledge those institutions sharing public domain works in an open way, and also communicate to the reader the places where they might find works which they can reuse with confidence.

Presenting all sources in a useful table

The page on the site dedicated to listing our sources has seen a big overhaul. Instead of a simple list, you’ll now find a sortable table, which includes all the new information mentioned above, as well as a showcase of each institution’s content featured on the site. Through using the sort feature on the columns, the table allows you to see at a glance the institutions we feature the most, and those doing the good work of making public domain works available free from restrictions.

Giving each source its own dedicated page

Each source institution also has its own dedicated page on the site, linked to from the table, which communicates all the aforementioned information relating to rights. In addition, there are, if relevant, links provided to the digital collections area of the source’s own website, and to their pages on aggregators such as Internet Archive or Flickr, and a listing of our Collections posts which feature their content.

Improving the “metadata box” for Collections posts

We’ve also fed the information about the rights of digital copies (in addition to a link to the institution's general rights page) directly into the “metadata box” in each of our Collections posts. This means readers can now easily see the rights that the source has communicated on its own site without having to click away from the page.

Creating a new “What is the Public Domain?” page

To accompany the changes above we have also written a new introduction to the public domain. This offers a brief outline of what is meant by the public domain, and how it can vary around the world, as well as an exploration of the issues at stake when these works go online in the form of digital copies.

Updating pages to make reuse simpler

We’ve also made significant updates to our Rights Labelling page and our Reusing Material page in an effort to communicate more clearly around reusing material found on the site.


We really hope you'll find the updates a useful improvement. Of course, any feedback is welcomed. We should end by emphasising that, for purposes of transparency and utility, we label the digital copies featured with the rights status claimed by the source institution, regardless of whether we agree or not with the principle, or whether such claims would actually stand up in a court of law. As we explain in “What is the Public Domain?”, it is our view that photographic reproductions of public domain works should not be subject to new copyright, and so should stay free from all restrictions on reuse when they go online. It is our mission at The Public Domain Review to champion this open approach, and that is why our drive for transparency is so central to these changes.

If you would like to support our work, then please do consider donating to the project.