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Copyright and the Value of the Public Domain


CREATe Working Paper


Intellectual Property Office report on

CREATe Working Paper 2015/01

Kristofer Erickson, Paul Heald, Fabian Homberg, Martin Kretschmer and Dinusha Mendis (2015)

Executive Summary

This research report documents the results of a year-long knowledge exchange initiative undertaken between the Intellectual Property Office, researchers at the University of Glasgow CREATe Centre, and more than two dozen UK businesses and innovators, to explore how value is generated from the public domain. The study was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO). The core research team consisted of Dr. Kristofer Erickson (Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow, CREATe, University of Glasgow), Professor Paul Heald (College of Law, University of Illinois), Dr. Fabian Homberg (Business School, Bournemouth University), Professor Martin Kretschmer (CREATe, University of Glasgow) and Dr. Dinusha Mendis (School of Law, Bournemouth University).

The overall purpose of the project was 1) to map the size of the public domain and frequency of its use; 2) analyse the role of public domain works in value creation for UK businesses; 3) assist creators and entrepreneurs to identify business models that benefit  from the public domain. In addition to these outputs, the intellectual contribution of this project was to arrive at a sufficiently precise definition of the public domain that would permit measurement of its value, and secondly, to critically appraise theories of creativity and innovation that explain how value might be generated from non-exclusive use of ideas and works available to all.  The non-rival, non-excludable nature of the public domain would seem to limit its appeal to creators in a competitive market. Any observed commercial uptake of public domain material consequently raises important questions: What stimulates creators to invest in transforming or re-publishing public domain works? How do firms gain and sustain competitive advantage when exploiting freely available public domain materials? What policy options are available to promote market uptake of public domain materials, and what are the likely impacts?

In order to address the objectives of the project, a number of specific empirical field sites were chosen. Each of the studies is expanded in detail in the following report. The studies consisted of 1) an analysis of strategic choices by UK firms to exploit public domain materials; 2) a quantitative, computer-assisted study of uptake and reuse of public domain materials by independent creators on Kickstarter; 3) a matched-pairs analysis of the effect of inclusion of public domain images on selected sub-pages of Wikipedia, to assess the value added to the platform by the availability and use of such works.

Following a symposium with legal experts, media and communication researchers and economists held in October 2013[1], the project adopted a definition of the ‘public domain’, focusing on the practicability of use by all potential users (both commercial and noncommercial) without requiring permission from a rightsholder. Our adopted definition (specific to the UK context) contains four main types of materials (more fully explained and justified in the introductory “legal background” section):

  1. Copyright works which are out of term of protection (Literary and artistic works created by authors who died prior to 1944)
  2. Materials that were never protected by copyright (Works from antiquity and folklore)
  3. Underlying ideas not being substantial expression (Inspiration taken from pre-existing work that may include genre, plot or ideas)
  4. Works offered to the public domain by their creator (Certain free and open licensed works without restrictions)

Study 1: Commercial uptake by creative businesses:

This study consisted of interviews with 22 creative businesses that used public domain materials to create commercial products.  Research explored why firms made decisions to invest in development of public domain projects, finding 4 main types of use: 1) engagement with fan community of existing literary work; 2) inclusion of public domain material to complement a technological platform or subscription service; 3) conscious entrepreneurial strategy based on identification of existing demand; and 4) partnership with a public institution to celebrate and engage the public about an event or anniversary of significance.  Researchers identified the following issues relating to public domain uptake:

  • Creators working with visual or multimedia content reported difficulties in locating and securing high-quality sources of public domain works (image resolution, digital format). This was a significant challenge to commercialisation.
  • Archives, museums, and libraries were frequently cited as useful partners when seeking access to public domain works, able to provide access to source material and data needed to ascertain copyright status of work.
  • There was little concern about competition due to non-excludability of source material, but firms worried about costs of marketing and sustaining PD projects when initial development cost and investment was also low.
  • Clarity on legal use (e.g. requirements for ‘diligent search’ when using orphan works) would improve commercialisation potential.

Study 2: Public domain projects on Kickstarter:

Crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter appear governed by an ethos which rewards originality and niche production. However, not all intellectual property (IP) on the platform is new and original. Often, pitch creators incorporate IP from a third party rightsholder, as well as material from the public domain. In order to assess the role of public domain material in a crowdfunded creative marketplace, the team performed quantitative analysis on 1,933 Kickstarter projects from January to April 2014.  Researchers employed statistical techniques to model likelihood of success of projects when different underlying copyright or public domain material was present.  The main findings were as follows:

  • Use of both public domain and third party licensed material were significantly associated with higher likelihood of project success.
  • Influence of public domain status on success rate was most pronounced in the mediums of Comics and Theatre, compared with Publishing and Video Games. This suggests that the role of PD materials differs across mediums. Direct republication of public domain literature does not seem to be rewarded – adaptation to another medium may be more attractive to backers.
  • Explicitly obtaining copyright permission to use a third party work in a Kickstarter pitch was significantly associated with higher funding levels achieved.
  • Previous experience and status of pitch creator was also significant to project success, suggesting that familiarity of both underlying work and its creator is important to Kickstarter funders.

Study 3: Impact of availability of public domain images on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia is an important global resource and is itself emblematic of the digital public domain, being free for uptake by commercial and non-commercial users alike. Much of the written content on Wikipedia is supplied by volunteer contributors. However, supplemental material such as photographs and illustrations must be used in such a way to ensure the openness and availability of articles to downstream users. Consequently, the Wikipedia platform potentially benefits from availability of photographs and illustrated material in the public domain (either due to copyright term expiration or open and unrestricted licensing). To assess the value of public domain images in the context of this resource, researchers studied the presence and impact of public domain images on biographical Wikipedia pages of 1,700 literary authors, lyricists and composers. Broadly, the study finds that the ‘background’ availability of public domain (PD) material has an effect on the rate of inclusion of images, as well as a measurable impact on the performance of those article sub-pages benefitting from visual enhancement offered by PD images.

  • Public domain availability makes a significant difference to inclusion of images on Wikipedia. Biographies for notable authors born prior to 1880 have a greater likelihood of containing an image than those born more recently, even though camera technology became widespread in the 20th Century.  Less than 58% of authors in the sample born after 1880 have images associated with their Wikipedia pages.
  • Controlling for notoriety of authors, composers and lyricists using a matched-pairs technique, we found that pages with public domain images attracted between 17% and 19% more visitors than pages where no image was available, reflecting the value those images contribute to the Wikipedia resource.
  • Using commercially equivalent licence fees obtained from Corbis and Getty for images relating to the biographical sample, we estimate a total value of USD $208 million (GBP £138 million[2]) per year for the 1,983,609 English-language Wikipedia pages in appropriate categories which contain public domain images.


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[1] See Erickson, K. and Kretschmer, M. (eds) (2014) Research Perspectives on the Public Domain: Digital Conference Proceedings. CREATe Working Paper Series 2014/3:

[2] Based on the exchange rate calculated on 25th January 2015.