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Millions of public domain images posted to Flickr

As passionate believers that the free exchange of ideas is central to creativity and innovation to the benefit of all, we love all things public domain – whether they are deliberately placed in the public domain thanks to the generosity of their creators, or because copyright on them has expired (the fact that copyright expires is legal recognition that ideas can and should not be owned indefinitely – progress is all about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, and while creators have a right to profit from their ideas and works, this should not permanently cripple human advancement.

It is therefore great to hear about how American academic Kalev Leettaru has uploaded 2.6 million photos and drawings to Flickr, sourced from over 600 million library book pages scanned by the Internet Archive organization.

‘For all these years all the libraries have been digitising their books, but they have been putting them up as PDFs or text searchable works.

They have been focusing on the books as a collection of words. This inverts that.

Stretching half a millennium, it’s amazing to see the total range of images and how the portrayals of things have changed over time.

Visitors to the site are free to copy and make use of the pictures without charge

Most of the images that are in the books are not in any of the art galleries of the world – the original copies have long ago been lost.’

Flickr internet archive image post office

Each image includes details about the book the image was obtained from, and extracts from the printed text before and after the image.

The Internet Archive used OCR to convert scans of books into searchable digital documents, but was very text-only focused, so Mr Leetaru wrote custom code which went back to the original scans of the books, extracting the images, and obtaining the text snippets.

Mr Leetaru is keen to see the images used as an education tool,

I think one of the greatest things people will do is time travel through the images. Type in the telephone, for example, and you can see that all the initial pictures are of businesspeople, and mostly men. Telephone The library of pictures allows users to explore how technologies developed over the years. Then you see it morph into more of a tool to connect families. You see another progression with the railroad where in the first images it was all about innovation and progress that was going to change the world, then you see its evolution as it becomes part of everyday life.

Flickr Internet Archive telephone

It is a bit of a shame that images are listed with ‘No known copyright restrictions’ rather than ‘Copyright free’, and the tagging is a bit hit and miss, but this archive should prove a treasure trove for historians, amateur and professional alike.


Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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2 responses to “Millions of public domain images posted to Flickr

  1. It is a bit of a shame that images are listed with ‘No copyright restrictions’ rather than ‘Copyright free’, could you please explain the difference between the two? thanks

    1. Hi Mark,

      I’m afraid you picked up a typo there (now corrected). The sentence should read ‘It is a bit of a shame that images are listed with ‘No known copyright restrictions’ rather than ‘Copyright free’… The difference is in the certainty – ‘no known restrictions’ is hedging bets in case someone comes along and decides to put in a copyright claim. Given the age of these images, we would prefer to see a more assertive stance taken as to their public domain status…

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