The internet age has seen a giant database of information created at our fingertips. In many ways we’re still learning how and why we should use this resource: for communication, commerce, creation or information? Adam Green has found a way to unlock some of the web’s more intriguing secrets by featuring creative and historical works […]

The internet age has seen a giant database of information created at our fingertips. In many ways we’re still learning how and why we should use this resource: for communication, commerce, creation or information? Adam Green has found a way to unlock some of the web’s more intriguing secrets by featuring creative and historical works that have an open licence on his website, The Public Domain Review. Here he tells us about his motivations behind the website, his favourite discoveries and the annual Public Domain Day, when at the turn of each year certain works are freed from copyright.

What made you want to begin the Public Domain Review project?

The main impetus was simply to share some of the amazingly strange and beautiful things I was finding in these gigantic online archives of public domain material. For a long time I’d been into exploring them to find material to make collages with, something I was into for a while. I started a little blog putting up the best of the things I found and then, with the opportunity of some funding through the Open Knowledge Foundation, it was turned into something more substantial. I started writing to academics and writers to contribute articles and then I guess the project was born.

How do you go about finding information and creative material?

Finding the material is usually a process of deep immersion in these online archives – particularly, when it comes to books, in the magnificent Internet Archive – and keeping an eye out for the weird and wonderful buried away. There’s also a whole slew of fantastic blogs out there featuring interesting old works, so I’ll often trace the links back from these.

Do you have any particular favourite articles on the website?

A difficult question! I’d say one of my favourites is ‘Krakatoa Sunsets’ by a writer called Richard Hamblyn. It’s a really fascinating look at Indonesia’s Krakatoa volcano explosion of 1883, which sent a huge ash cloud out and had bizarre effects on the weather the world over. The article explores the series of letters the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sent into Nature magazine, in which he describes the strange optical effects and surreal colours he observed in the evening skies of England.

Another favourite is Julian Barnes on when the French writer Maupassant visited the English poet Swinburne and his lover in their French holiday cottage for lunch, an invitation given on the back of the Frenchman rescuing a drowning Swinburne the day earlier. Things got a bit weird at the lunch – including a flayed human hand, pornography, the serving of monkey meat, and inordinate amounts of alcohol – all detailed by Maupassant in a great little story which we had translated from the French especially to accompany the article.

I’m also a big fan of one we had on the strange world of medieval animal trials, a surprisingly common occurrence in Western Europe in the 15th and 16th century. Animals would be subject to full-on human-style trials with legal representatives, all for a litany of bizarre offences, including sparrows being prosecuted for chattering in church, rats for thieving (which actually led to an acquittal on account of a technicality) and, in a more serious case, a pig being found guilty and hanged for the murder of an infant in its cradle.

How do you approach the concept of ‘open knowledge’. Is this a project aimed at freedom of information that is widely sought after or do you see it more as the recovery of stories, art and creativity lost in time?

For me, I guess, it’s mostly about the latter, but it’s a process which relies heavily on the “freedom of information” aspect, as you put it, i.e. the existence of these digital archives which anyone can access. It’s the fact that some museums, libraries and so on, have decided to digitise their material and make it open, which allows the process of ‘recovery’ to take place – particularly when they digitise content somewhat indiscriminately, an approach which leads to the creation of ginormous digital silos of, often unstudied, material, the sheer volume of which opens up the opportunity to find the really strange and obscure stuff, things that have, as you put it, been “lost in time”.

I guess it’s this “lost in time” aspect which is crucial to a large part of what The Public Domain Review is trying to do, that is to explore a sort of alternative history to the mainstream narrative, showcase just some of the excellence and strangeness of human ideas and activity ‘in-between’ these big events and works about which history is normally woven. And also, importantly, through always linking back to the sources, we try to encourage others to do the same – to open up in our readers a sense of history which isn’t spoon-fed but which is more playful and open to new interpretations and fresh connections or associations. The historical digital content being free and open is crucial to this. When the digital content is itself openly licensed (ideally dedicated to the public domain) then it allows this engagement from the present to be unfettered by worries about infringing copyright. Artists and writers can re-use or re-mix material to create new cultural objects – a sort of recycling which I see being at the heart of all production of new works.

Which creative material were you most excited to see liberated following this year’s Public Domain Day?

In the EU, works fall into the public domain 70 years after the creator’s death – so from this bunch there is the works of [jazz pianist] Fats Waller now out-of-copyright which is great to see and also, a childhood favourite, Beatrix Potter. Some countries follow a ‘50 years after death’ rule and they saw a great haul this year, including Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, Louis MacNeice, Jean Cocteau, C S Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Quite a gang.

Do you think 70 years after the death of the author is too long or short a length of time to wait for information and creative material to enter the public domain?

70 years is too long. I understand the wish for artists and writers to want to build something for their children or family after they are gone, and I think they should have the right to do this, but I think 50 years has it about right if that’s the goal. Any longer and it just encourages a whole economy of artist ‘estates’, which can often do more harm than good when it comes to the work getting the widest possible reach, both in terms of dissemination and also new engagements with the work by a new generation. There’ve been some great studies done which show the benefit of works being in the public domain – such as a recent research paper from the US titled ‘Do Bad Things Happen When Works Enter the Public Domain?’ which totally debunks the three common arguments for long copyright terms: 1) that works which fall into the public domain will be under-exploited, because there will be no incentive to produce new works; 2) that they will be over-exploited, with too many people using them and therefore reducing their worth; 3) and that they will be tarnished, by being reproduced in low quality ways or associated with undesirable things. All shown to not be the case at all.

Public Domain Review
Class of 2014: This year’s public domain entrants
Do Bad Things Happen When Works Enter The Public Domain?

Ian Pennington.