Public domain

In this black and white image, we see the young André Ratté Junior, proudly posing with the photographer's tabby cat in front of a neutral, grey background.
Richard Tepe, 1924. Gelatin negative on glass. Inv. no. TEP-1505.

Collection Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam / Public Domain.

The Public Domain has a magical power over me: I’m not only a fan but a Believer, wishing I had a job that revolves around it.

An ex of mine liked to refer to me as a communist—and when it comes to the public domain [PD], it is not even that far-fetched. I believe that people, regardless of their economical status, should have obstacle-free access to certain things, amongst them information, art and, naturally, the love children of these two: documentary projects of all kinds. Without getting into the deep and muddy waters of blaming the art world’s elitism, let’s see why I obsess with “stuff” that is out there for all of us.

According to Wikipedia, “[the PD] consists of all the creative work to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply [as T]hose rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or may be inapplicable”.[1] Now, I have never been good at deciphering legal lingo[2], but this sounds pretty good to me. Simplifying it to its core: whatever becomes part of the PD is up for grabs. Respectfully, mind you. But still up for grabs. You might just enjoy the content of it passively, research it thoroughly, decorate your home with it or even decide to reuse it for your own creative process; your options are practically endless.

Amongst other institutions, museums have been working hard to add parts of their collections to the PD. The Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam has recently included nature photographer Richard Tepe’s (1864–1952) work in the ever-growing legacy, and I couldn’t be happier. Look at this adorable picture of André Ratté junior and Tepe’s cat, Poeti. A most endearing image, a perfect example of the humanising power of photography—no matter whether the sitter is indeed a human or not. Poeti and her personality are in there without a doubt, posing somewhat resigned yet proud in André’s embrace.

There are so many beautiful initiatives out there and all that one needs is an internet connection[3] to open up a practically limitless universe of possibilities. The PD is a rabbit hole paradise, the good kind. Go get lost in it.

Just a few of my favourites:

EuropeanaDiscover Europe’s digital cultural heritage.

Fortepana copyright-free and community-based photo archive with over 100,000 photographs available for anyone to browse and download in high-resolution, free of charge.

The Internet ArchiveLike a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, people with print disabilities, and the general public. Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge.

[1], last accessed: 14th June 2022

[2] Even if I were good at it, I find copyright law especially confusing.

[3] I’m not ignoring the role of museums, libraries and archives, but the internet is the real game changer here.

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