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Creative Commons Releases Public Domain Mark
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Posted On October 18, 2010
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On Oct. 11, Creative Commons announced the release of the Public Domain Mark, a tool that enables works free of known copyright restrictions to be labeled in a way that clearly communicates that status to the public and allows easy discovery of such works on the internet. On Oct. 15, Europeana announced its adoption of the Public Domain Mark at the Europeana Open Culture 2010 Conference in Amsterdam, becoming the first major user of the mark.

The Public Domain Mark is the second of two worldwide public domain tools offered by Creative Commons, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that has worked since 2001 to facilitate licensing and legal sharing of creative works with “some rights reserved.” CC0 (CC Zero), introduced in March 2009, is a universal waiver of copyright that can be used when copyright owners want to permanently surrender rights they may have in a work, thereby placing the work into the public domain. Because copyright is waived, CC0 is not a license—it is a legal tool that allows copyright owners to “dedicate” their works to the public domain. CC0 may be used throughout the world for any kind of content without adaptation to laws in different jurisdictions.

PDM Tool

The new Public Domain Mark (PDM) differs from CC0 in that the PDM may be used by anyone — not only a copyright owner — who has identified a work free of copyright restrictions. Primarily the works eligible will be very old works that have passed out of copyright; the mark is intended to identify works unrestricted by copyright in any jurisdiction of the world. The PDM should not be used for works in the public domain in some geographic areas but still under copyright in other jurisdictions. Creative Commons works with more than 50 world copyright jurisdictions and has previously released six types of copyright licenses that it estimates have now been applied to 350 million works.

Cultural heritage workers in museums, libraries, and archives are often knowledgeable about the copyright status of paintings, books, manuscripts, photographs, and other works in their collections. Representatives of such collections are expected to apply the PDM, which operates as a tag or a label to communicate that a work is no longer restricted by copyright and may be freely used by others. The Creative Commons Public Domain Tools site tells more about how to apply the Public Domain Mark, linking to an extensive FAQ sheet and work page enabling the creation of a work-specific, machine-readable mark. The work page guides contributors through the process of generating code for marking the item they have identified as free of known copyright restrictions. Public domain items are not registered on the site—works are not associated with a Public Domain Mark until the contributor publishes them marked with the PDM code.

The Creative Commons PDM is not just a logo; it is HTML code with embedded metadata, which makes it consistent and easily discoverable. This can enable users to find public domain content on the internet using tools such as Google’s Advanced Search “usage rights” filter, Flickr’s Creative Commons search, and Yahoo!’s Creative Commons search, all of which now support Creative Commons’ license options. Once found, public domain works are available for use without copyright restriction: Users may “copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission.”

Europeana’s Adoption

Europeana, the megaportal representing Europe’s digital library, museum, and archives, estimates that it will take until mid-2011 to label its out-of-copyright works with the Public Domain Mark. The portal, funded by the European Commission and its member states and partners, is still in beta but is scheduled officially to relaunch later this year with more than 10 million digital objects. Executive director Jill Cousins says, “The legal and technical rigor applied by Creative Commons throughout the development process makes the Public Domain Mark the natural choice for Europeana’s infrastructure.”

Europeana, working with Creative Commons and its content providers, has developed usage guidelines for public domain works that make it clearer how to use public domain cultural content responsibly. The guidelines urge users of public domain works to credit the author and the institution providing the work because public credit for institutions can encourage more institutions to put their public domain works online. When adapting works, users should show respect for the original work and protect the reputation of its creators by not attributing their own changes to the original creator or provider. If users have additional information about a work, such as where it came from, its author, content, or other possible rightsholders, they should share their knowledge by tagging, annotating, or commenting on a public domain work published online and sending the information back to the institution that holds the original object. Just because a work is in the public domain and may be used by anyone for any purpose, even commercial, there are still rules of etiquette and good will.

There are other caveats, as well, which Creative Commons clarifies at its Public Domain Mark 1.0 site:

  • The work may not be free of known copyright restrictions in all jurisdictions.
  • Persons may have other rights in or related to the work, such as patent or trademark rights, and others may have rights in how the work is used, such as publicity or privacy rights.
  • In some jurisdictions moral rights of the author may persist beyond the term of copyright. These rights may include the right to be identified as the author and the right to object to derogatory treatments.
  • Unless expressly stated otherwise, the person who identified the work makes no warranties about the work and disclaims liability for all uses of the work to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law.
  • When using or citing the work, you should not imply endorsement by the author or the person who identified the work.

Expanding the Public Domain

Technically speaking, the new mark has no legal standing; it is an assertion that a work is in the public domain and the guidelines are there to ensure that the assertion is well-considered. Nevertheless, “the Public Domain Mark is a further step on the path towards making the promise of a digital public domain a reality,” says Michael Carroll, a founding board member of Creative Commons and a law professor at American University. “Marking and tagging works with information about their copyright status is essential. Computers must be able to parse the public domain status of works to communicate its usefulness to the public. The metadata standard underpinning the Public Domain Mark and all of CC’s licensing and legal tools are what makes this possible.”

Creative Commons is already planning the next phases of its public domain work, which will look at ways to identify and mark works in the public domain in a limited number of countries. Stay tuned.

See also:

Creative Commons Public Domain Tools

CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Expanding the Public Domain: Part Zero

Creative Commons Public Domain Mark FAQ

Gordon-Murnane, Laura. “Creative Commons: Copyright Tools for the 21st Century.” ONLINE (Jan/Feb 2010). 


Susanne Bjorner provides editorial services to publishers, librarians, authors, and researchers from her base in Spain.

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