The brilliance of Flickr Commons and the public domain

Flickr’s The Commons is a really clever initiative.

Flickr gets high-value historical content (the kind of stuff that drives the long tail) and some nice publicity. The collections get to bring their content to many new users in a new way. Beyond access, the collections can also accrue tags, comments, and geo-tags, potentially adding a layer of valuable data. Since the photos are in the public domain (and marked as such), everyone has full re-use rights; there’s no threat of Flickr holding the collections hostage. (I don’t know whether the collections can mass-export all the associated data in a useful format, though. If not, The Commons is basically just a neat toy and not of archival value.) All around, it’s a great collaboration between for-profit and non-profit entities, where everybody wins, including the public.

The confluence of all this is maybe best demonstrated in this blog post by Australia’s Powerhouse Museum, the latest to join The Commons:

What Flickr offers the Powerhouse is an immediate large and broader audience for this content. And with this exposure we hope that we will have a strong driver to increase the cataloguing and digitisation of the remaining Tyrrell glass plate negatives as well as many more the previously hidden photographic collections of the Powerhouse.

In other words, projects like this create demand for more digitization of open content. Now that’s a comedy of the commons.

This entry was posted in Copyright, Libraries, Open content, Public domain. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The brilliance of Flickr Commons and the public domain

  1. seb chan says:

    Hi Gavin

    The well documented Flickr API gives us full and equally importantly easyaccess to all the user tags and comments left on each image that we have uploaded to the Commons.

    If it was not for the API we would have had similar qualms. Our data is uploaded via the API as well which makes the whole process of extracting the images and metadata from our own system, putting them into Flickr, and then bringing back changes, very painless.

    In many ways it has been far easier for us to contribute to the Commons on a technical level than it has been to participate in cultural sector content sharing and federated search initiatives.

    We are already finding that the knowledgeable and photography-aware Flickr audience is leaving some very useful extra information about some of the images and the tags are providing some interesting metadata options for us going forward – especially on the images that we know very little about.

    Seb Chan
    Manager, Web Services
    Powerhouse Museum

  2. Gavin Baker says:

    Seb, thanks for the comment. I am not familiar with the Flickr API so it’s good to know it’s easy to extract the associated data. Is it also in a useful format for you? Any concerns about copyright on the comments/tags?

    I am not sure I’d recommend Flickr as the sole Web provider for access to a museum collection, but as a secondary provider (in addition to the museum’s digital repository), it offers a lot.

    I’m more familiar with the research world. Is there some equivalent of LOCKSS for digital versions of rare documents? It strikes me that this would be a paradigm shift; instead of only one copy in a museum or archive somewhere, there can now be infinite non-rivalrous copies.

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  4. seb chan says:

    Hi Gavin

    When tags and comments are submitted to Flickr they are covered by the standard T&C of Flickr so our reuse of them is fine. There is a quite explicit understanding that any comments and tags are done so with the intention that they can be re-used by third parties – and the API makes this very easy and able to be automated.

    You are right, we would never *just* put our collection in Flickr – both our photos and the library of congress images have been available on our own sites for many years. Flickr exposes them to a much larger and diverse audience and both us and the LoC also benefit from a much more user friendly interface (esp LoC images!).

    LOCKSS – yes, this is in part what we are doing although I’d also argue that much of what museums are (or should be) trying to do is increase general public access to out of Copyright materials so that there is a general *demand* to keep things preserved (rather than an assumption that we should be preserving these things). The Internet Archive ( has been quite advanced with ensuring its contents are replicated all over the world. I am pretty sure that our data in Flickr is significantly better protected than it is on our own Museum servers – just because of economies of scale.


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