Created to navigate the copious amounts of data that make up the public domain, The Public Domain Review, which launched on Public Domain Day (1/1/11), is a site that provides access to obscure materials that might ordinarily slip through the cracks as well as a new perspective on work that might already be familiar. From medical texts on dying from Victorian England to a 1913 track from The Hawaiian Quintette to the first ever kiss caught on film, this “curated collection of exotic scraps and marvelous rarities” founded by Jonathan Gray and Adam Green is a gem. We wanted to hear more about their project so we asked Gray and Green to chime in via our “6 questions with…” series.
If I was a fly on the wall of your office/studio, what would I have seen you doing yesterday?
Imagine two sun-blushed Tudor gentlemen leafing through velum folios and inspecting reams of pristine celluloid in a wooden paneled studio apartment filled with huge blue conches, fine Peruvian etchings, unexpectedly small medieval waistcoats, and other such wonderful curiosities, perhaps in a former Dutch colony or Los Angeles. Sadly this is not what you would see if you were a fly on our wall yesterday. You would likely find us faintly lit by our laptops, lost in online archives of public domain material, making lists, battling browser tabs, checking visitor statistics, and quaffing pot after pot of ‘gunpowder’ green tea.
What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work with the Public Domain Review relevant at this point in time?
Firstly, we want to make more people aware of the public domain as a valuable asset which everyone is free to enjoy, use and share. Many people understand the public domain as an accidental bi-product of copyright, but we want more people to think of it as a positive good: a shared cultural commons which belongs to no-one (and hence to everyone!) and into which all works inevitably pass. Secondly, we want to enable more people to be able to use public domain works. Digital technologies mean these works can move around in a frictionless world: without cost, without registration, and without restrictive conditions on their use. Unfortunately many institutions and companies are inclined to assert their ownership on digital copies of public domain artifacts. We want to encourage them not to.
What do you wish you had known when you began working on the Public Domain Review project?
We wish we knew more languages. And how to make websites do what you want them to do. And that ‘gunpowder’ green tea existed (before we only had Jasmine).
What was the pathway that brought you to this work?
Before starting the Public Domain Review, we’d both spent ages looking for interesting and unusual public domain works – for collages and for several other projects. We found many gems buried away in vast online collections, which we kept in bookmarks and notes – and we wanted a way to share them with others. We wanted to create a small exhibition gallery in front of the big online library that consists of projects like Internet Archive, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr Commons, the Library of Congress, and Europeana. We also wanted to find a way to surface all of the interesting knowledge and insight that people have about many of these items, and to give these people an avenue to write about public domain works, rather than just works which are newly published.
Who or what has most influenced your life and work?
Archimedes. Kazimierz Nowak. Bob Dylan’s ‘Billy 4’.
What book is on your nightstand right now?
Novalis’s Notes for a Romantic Encyclopedia. Calvino’s Italian Folktales. Wonderful Balloon Ascents. Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald. Husain Haddawy’s translation of the Arabian Nights. Bulgakov’s Diaboliad. Cabinet Magazine Issue 41: Infrastructure. The Medici Giraffe and Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power. A Voyage To the Moon Strongly Recommended to All Lovers of Real Freedom.