The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Public Domain, Making Them Free to Reuse & Remix

brit library image

Ear­li­er this week, Oxford’s Bodleian Library announced that it had dig­i­tized a 550 year old copy of the Guten­berg Bible along with a num­ber of oth­er ancient bibles, some of them quite beau­ti­ful. Not to be out­done, the British Library came out with its own announce­ment on Thurs­day:

We have released over a mil­lion images onto Flickr Com­mons for any­one to use, remix and repur­pose. These images were tak­en from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry books digi­tised by Microsoft who then gen­er­ous­ly gift­ed the scanned images to us, allow­ing us to release them back into the Pub­lic Domain. The images them­selves cov­er a star­tling mix of sub­jects: There are maps, geo­log­i­cal dia­grams, beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions, com­i­cal satire, illu­mi­nat­ed and dec­o­ra­tive let­ters, colour­ful illus­tra­tions, land­scapes, wall-paint­ings and so much more that even we are not aware of.

The librar­i­ans behind the project freely admit that they don’t exact­ly have a great han­dle on the images in the col­lec­tion. They know what books the images come from. (For exam­ple, the image above comes from His­to­ria de las Indias de Nue­va-España y islas de Tier­ra Firme, 1867.) But they don’t know much about the par­tic­u­lars of each visu­al. And so they’re turn­ing to crowd­sourc­ing for answers. In fair­ly short order, the Library plans to release tools that will let will­ing par­tic­i­pants gath­er infor­ma­tion and deep­en our under­stand­ing of every­thing in the Flickr Com­mons col­lec­tion.

You can jump into the entire col­lec­tion here, or view a set of high­lights here. The lat­ter hap­pens to include a curi­ous image. (See below.) It’s from an 1894 book called The Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca. A study of the Amer­i­can Com­mon­wealth, its nat­ur­al resources, peo­ple, indus­tries, man­u­fac­tures, com­merce, and its work in lit­er­a­ture, sci­ence, edu­ca­tion and self-gov­ern­ment. And the pic­ture fea­tures, accord­ing to the text, a “Typ­i­cal fig­ure, show­ing ten­den­cy of stu­dent life–stooping head, flat chest, and ema­ci­at­ed limbs.” It’s hard to know what to say about that.

To learn more about this British Library ini­tia­tive, read this oth­er Open Cul­ture post which takes a deep­er dive into the image col­lec­tion.

american student


Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Rijksmu­se­um Puts 125,000 Dutch Mas­ter­pieces Online, and Lets You Remix Its Art

The Get­ty Puts 4600 Art Images Into the Pub­lic Domain (and There’s More to Come)

The Dig­i­tal Pub­lic Library of Amer­i­ca Launch­es Today, Open­ing Up Knowl­edge for All

Cor­nell Launch­es Archive of 150,000 Bird Calls and Ani­mal Sounds, with Record­ings Going Back to 1929

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Comments (47)
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  • RetroMan says:

    In Amer­i­ca, these images had been in the pub­lic domain for some time, because they had been pub­lished before 1922. So Microsoft did­n’t “release” any­thing, and the British Library did­n’t need per­mis­sion to put into the pub­lic domain what was already there.

    • idefix says:

      But in the UK, the BL still owns the copy­right to scans of images in its col­lec­tions, so these images were not free of copy­right restric­tions until the BL decid­ed it was. Inter­na­tion­al copy­right law is quite com­pli­cat­ed, and has to do with the own­er of the phys­i­cal object, as well as the date of cre­ation of the object.

  • Alex Wild says:

    These images were already in the pub­lic domain. What the British Library did was put them online, which is nice, but it’s hard­ly the same thing.

  • turnkit says:

    What’s with the solar­iza­tion on the stu­dents pant legs? They real­ly did all that scan­ning work and then reduced the qual­i­ty so that there are just a few tones of black on that pant leg?!!? Some­times doing poor archival is worse than no archival because now that it’s “done” no one is going to re-do it. Here’s to hop­ing those scans are bet­ter at the source.

    • Gordon McAlpin says:

      You’re mis­guid­ed here. I’ve been a pro­fes­sion­al print pro­duc­tion artist for near­ly two decades. Look more close­ly at how the tones look; it’s clear­ly NOT the result of dig­i­tal pos­ter­i­za­tion. It is a scan from a print­ed book; what you think is “solar­iza­tion” is a low line screen on the print­ing of the BOOK that they had. This is a per­fect­ly fine dig­i­tal fac­sim­i­le of a bad repro­duc­tion of a photo.nnnAnd, being a library, it seems pret­ty like­ly that they would have a book but NOT the orig­i­nal pho­to used in the pro­duc­tion of the book.

  • Dave Bailey says:

    “These images were already in the pub­lic domain. What the British Library did was put them online, which is nice, but it’s hard­ly the same thing.“n“In Amer­i­ca, these images had been in the pub­lic domain for some time, because they had been pub­lished before 1922. So Microsoft did­n’t “release” any­thing, and the British Library did­n’t need per­mis­sion to put into the pub­lic domain what was already there.“nnnCome on guys, don’t you realise that these days it’s all about tak­ing cred­it? (If you use that expla­na­tion one day, don’t for­get that I said it first. In fact, give me a cred­it) ;-)

  • Open Culture says:

    Just curi­ous, does any­one know which Face­book page gave this a men­tion this morn­ing? nnThanks,nDan (edi­tor)

  • 891ccv says:

    “entire col­lec­tion here” link only goes to high­lights page

  • 891ccv says:

    Here’s link to entire col­lec­tion …

  • Andacar says:

    This arti­cle says the images are “free to reuse and remix.” How­ev­er, when I go to the Flickr com­mons there appears to be no way of down­load­ing them, and Save Image is dis­abled. Do you have to be a mem­ber? Or am I just miss­ing some­thing here?

  • Ana says:

    To save the images: right clic on the image and select one of the size options, the image will appear with the cho­sen size, there you can save the image in the usu­al way :)

  • Rosa Bouchot says:


  • Peter Grudin says:


  • Peter Grudin says:

    “gift­ed”? And don’t tell me it is com­mon usage. It is com­mon enough and com­mon­ly used out of a com­bi­na­tion of pre­ten­tious­ness and taste­less­ness.

  • FlashbackKid says:

    Just enjoy them and quit whin­ing about who, what, when, and where. Thanks to the respon­si­ble par­ties who made avail­able to me. :0)

  • subhash yadav says:

    I want alwar city his­tor­i­cal pho­tos

  • Gamini Akmeemana says:

    I’m a third world writer and hope to start my own mod­est cyber muse­um and archives as it’s a neglect­ed and poor­ly under­stood sub­ject over here. I love read­ing about pub­lic domain resources and will link with them once I get going.

  • jon says:

    Dont get me start­ed on the US and copy­right.

    Youtube dis­re­gards the fun­da­men­tal rights of TV and film mak­ers world wide, pass­ing the buck of respon­si­bil­i­ty to the per­son upload­ing the video.

    If roles were reversed and it was a non-US com­pa­ny doing this we would nev­er hear the end of it and the US courts would cer­tain­ly take them to the clean­ers.

    I pay a license fee for my TV, I am fed up of see­ing this US com­pa­ny rip off the TV com­pa­nies and pro­duc­ers in my coun­try. The Youtube gen­er­a­tion think they can have some­thing for noth­ing — wrong — film mak­ers need pay­ing, actors need pay­ing and stan­dards suf­fer if they can­not get their dues.

  • Uma says:

    Click on the image. It will bring it up by itself. Then right click and Save as.

  • carl says:

    Wile the orig­i­nal work copy­rights have expired, the work of oth­ers based on that work has not expired. So you ‑can- use the orginal images…if you get them your­self. To use the ones oth­ers have already got … they own the rights to *their* work.

  • carl says:

    “those images are copy­right­ed.”

    ie “the [dig­i­tal] images are copy­right­ed”

  • Vojtech says:

    “Faith­ful repro­duc­tions of two-dimen­sion­al works of art, such as paint­ings, which are in the pub­lic domain are an excep­tion to this rule. In July 2008, fol­low­ing a state­ment clar­i­fy­ing WMF pol­i­cy, Com­mons vot­ed to the effect that all such pho­tographs are accept­ed as pub­lic domain regard­less of coun­try of ori­gin, and tagged with a warn­ing.”

  • Muluwama says:

    Gor­don, you are absolute­ly right. I’m sure there was no one going art­sy on the scans :)

  • Anthony says:

    Read­ers of this piece might be inter­est­ed to know that researchers at Cardiff Uni­ver­si­ty, work­ing with the British Library and Arts and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil, have cre­at­ed a data­base to actu­al­ly search and clas­si­fy the 1m images at:

  • Matthew Kovacs says:

    Here’s the one they did­n’t want you to see:

    “Ancient Dong”

    /Users/Matt/Desktop/Ancient Dong Watermark.jpg

  • Matthew Kovacs says:

    Oi — I can’t post the pic­ture. too bad

  • Charles M. Hamm says:

    Nope, not under cur­rent U.S. case law. There has to be an ele­ment of orig­i­nal human cre­ativ­i­ty involved. Mere mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion (scan­ning or a straight pho­to­graph­ic repro­duc­tion) isn’t enough. See Bridge­man Art Library v. Corel Corp., 36 F. Supp. 2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999). There have been sim­i­lar rul­ings in oth­er coun­tries (most notably, the Unit­ed King­dom). Your mileage in oth­er coun­tries will vary.

  • Dianne Loomos says:

    How do you get these images into a form more suit­able for print? 200–300 dpi and eps or png for­mat?

  • Ladybug2535 says:

    Actu­al­ly, accord­ing to a recent Supreme Court Rul­ing, sim­ply own­ing the orig­i­nal pub­lic domain image, or pho­tograph­ing, scan­ning, etc. does NOT impose a new copy­right on that image. It has to be SUBSTANTIALLY altered in order for the image to be under a new copy­right. The court (right­ly) deter­mined that pub­lish­ing, scan­ning, adjust­ing qual­i­ty, alter­ing tone, col­oriz­ing, etc. does not alter the orig­i­nal image enough in order to be con­sid­ered a new work. If it’s pub­lished in a book, the image itself is NOT under the copy­right of that book. If it’s pho­tographed by a muse­um and put up for sale, the muse­um can right­ly charge for that print, but not claim copy­right. If some­one takes a pho­to or scans that print, they have NOT vio­lat­ed copy­right. Once in Pub­lic Domain, it remains in Pub­lic Domain.

  • josh says:

    excel­lent thank you for that tid­bit, makes this even more inter­est­ing!

  • murlee says:

    Astrol­o­gy And Astrologers Are Pure­ly கொள்ளயடிக்கும் கும்பலாக உள்ள ஊர் கொடுமுடி. அந்தனரை மட்டும் நம்பி பரிகாரபூஜை செய்ய அறிவுறுத்தப்படுகிறது. Mafia க்கள் அந்தனர்களை நேர்மையாக பூஜை செய்யவிடாமல் காசுக்கு ஏங்கும் காவலர் உதவியுடன் ஏமாற்று வேலை செய்வர். பரிகாரபூஜை செய்ய வரு ம்்ர
    பக்தர்கள் உஷார்

  • alan dobson says:

    uk steam trains images

  • Core Mini Bins says:

    Just Won­der­ful. :)

  • Michaela Moryskova says:

    Great..!! That’s just won­der­ful.

  • Dom says:

    Is it pos­si­ble to use one of those images for orig­i­nal author music video for Youtube, they say they are free for pub­lic and pho­to manip­u­la­tion ? Help out

  • Andrew Breslin says:

    »You missed one small detail: Microsoft digitized/ pho­tographed the images, and from a legal point of view, those images are copy­right­ed.«

    Actu­al­ly … no. A lot of peo­ple think they have a copy­right on a scan or a pho­to of a pub­lic domain image that they hap­pened to do, but (in U.S. courts, any­way) this claim has con­sis­tent­ly not held up. Courts have con­sis­tent­ly ruled that a sim­ple repro­duc­tion of an image lacks suf­fi­cient orig­i­nal­i­ty to qual­i­fy for copy­right pro­tec­tion. It does­n’t mat­ter how much time, mon­ey and effort went into copy­ing it. The result­ing repack­aged image is still PD.

    Now if you copied an old PD image and you drew a fun­ny mus­tache on it, or used some crazy col­or fil­ter­ing for a neat visu­al effect, THAT image would be copy­rightable.

    Sim­i­lar­ly, if you pho­tographed a 3‑D object like a stat­ue, your pho­to is copy­rightable. Because you make cre­ative choic­es about shad­ows and angles and what­not. It includes cre­ativ­i­ty and not just mechan­i­cal repro­duc­tion. A scan or pho­to­graph of a 2D image does not and is not pro­tect­ed by copy­right.

    A copy of a PD image is a PD image. You need to do more than just copy it for it to be pro­tect­ed.

  • Sophie says:

    Just to clar­i­fy… so this resource can be legal­ly used from the U.S? Also, one is def­i­nite­ly allowed to alter/edit the images? Thanks!

  • John says:

    You say that you have a mil­lion images (or 1,000,000…whatever amount that is), BUT,how do I get onto all this ‘stuff’? Where’s the box that says: ‘Tick here’, etc.? Hop­ing to hear from you. John, South Aus­tralia.

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