NAtional Galleries of Scotland,flickr commons picture
Sitting pretty on a photosharing website, next to high detail digital camera shots of sunsets and smiles, is an over hundred year black and white photograph of a very good looking Scottish sheep.

Macgregor was a Scottish Blackface who lived in the 1890s and lived, by the looks of his photo, a full life. A century later, his digital prints can be seen by anyone in the world with a half-decent internet connection.

This access is possible because the National Galleries of Scotland, the owners of the photograph, have released parts of their photography archive on photosharing website, Flickr. The public can now access captured moments in history, dating as far back as 1840s, as part of the Flickr Commons project.

The Commons is an attempt to build a digital archive of photographic treasures. According to Flickr, it aims to “increase access to publicly-held photography collections.”

“We were interested in the project because we know we had a world class photography collection, and we wanted to find avenues for giving people access to it,” says Tessa Quinn, head of new media, the National Galleries of Scotland.

Not just pretty pictures

These rare black-and-white and sepia prints aren’t just “pretty pictures” to see and admire. They’re also available for free download, copying and reuse.

The copyright on these photos has either expired, or the copyright owners are happy to authorize others to use the work without restrictions.

“Copyright is a major issue for any visual arts organisation,” says Tessa Quinn. “We are very restricted in what we can do. It makes it very difficult to provide access to our collection digitally.”

Over thousands of rare photos from institutions including the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, Bibliothèque de Toulouse, and Imperial War Museum, London are now freely available online.

In the spirit of the information and knowledge commons, they are released as ‘no known copyright restrictions.’ So feel free to blog about Macgregor or make him the star of your next animation film.

Common friends

The Flickr initiative shares a similar ideology to Project Gutenberg, which attempts to create a digital archive of e-books.

Started in 1971 on one of the nodes of the computer network that would go on to become the internet, Project Gutenberg claims to have 30,000 copyright-free e-books that it freely distributes online.

Also enabling a free, open pool for knowledge, information and literacy, is the popular online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. The collaborative, volunteer driven website is probably the biggest success so far in the story of the Commons.

Not to forget NASA’s media archives, allowing free use of copyright free “NASA imagery, video, audio, and data files used for the rendition of 3-dimensional models for educational or informational purposes.”

Attempts are also being made in education, science research, software, film, sound and music to build digital libraries of works that can be freely accessed, used and modified.

Previous: Making education and knowledge available to everyone, freely and for free.

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