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Selling the Public Domain

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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For only $3.50, Teachers Pay Teachers will sell you 20 images already in the public domain.

Teachers Pay Teachers is a freewheeling online market where entrepreneurial educators sell lesson plans, powerpoints, and other didactic materials to each other. The site is a massive resource, with a blend of both free and paid content. It is big business, too. By their own account, the company has paid out nearly $80 million to contributors.

I was surprised, on browsing TpT yesterday, to discover several especially ambitious contributors packaging public domain photographs for sale. That’s odd. Public domain images are already open for anyone to use- are people really shelling out cash for what can be Googled for free? Apparently so.

There was nothing dishonest about the items. The photos’ public provenance was clearly explained. Yet the practice feels…strange. In the same way it feels strange that some companies bottle tap water, when the same product is available from municipal faucets. Are fools and their money being parted?

Perhaps, but on reflection, I don’t think so. Online image searches typically return a tangle of copyrighted works, Creative Commons-licensed copyrighted works, orphaned works, and public domain images. What’s worse, most images aren’t labelled as belonging to any of those categories, and those that are often erroneously bear the wrong one. As long as online image use remains an intellectual property minefield, a market for paid clarity is only natural.

[note: the screen capture from Teachers Pay Teachers is reproduced without permission as Fair Use editorial commentary on the website and its public domain products.]

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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