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The launch of the Digital Public Library of America

Yesterday saw the launch of one of the best initiatives for researchers the United States has ever seen: the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

Watch out for rights issues

As described by the DPLA itself, the project has three key elements:

• First, an easy-to-use portal where anyone can access America’s collections and search through them using novel and powerful techniques, including by place and time.
• Second, a sophisticated technical platform that will make those millions of items available in ways so that others can build creative and transformative applications upon them, such as smartphone apps that magically reveal the history around you.
• Third, along with like-minded institutions and individuals the DPLA will seek innovative means to make more cultural and scientific content openly available, and it will advocate for a strong public option for reading and research in the twenty-first century.1

At launch, the DPLA offers innovative ways to access millions of items now housed in the digital collections of some of the countries premier institutions, among them:
     • the Boston Public Library;
     • the New York Public Library;
     • The Enoch Pratt Free Library;
     • the San Francisco City and County Library;
     • the Los Angeles Public Library;
     • the Georgetown County Library;
     • the Newberry;
     • the Texas State Library;
     • Mountain West Digital Library;
     • Digital Commonwealth;
     • Digital Library of Georgia;
     • Kentucky Digital Library;
     • Minnesota Digital Library;
     • South Carolina Digital Library;
     • Oregon Digital Library;
     • the National Archives and Records Administration;
     • the Smithsonian Institution;
     • the libraries of
          • Michigan University;
          • University of Virginia;
          • Stanford;
          • University of Illinois;
          • Harvard University;
     • the Internet Archive;
     • the Hathi Trust;
     • the Council on Library and Information Services;
     • the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS);
     • Arcadia Fund;
     • John S. and James L. Knight Foundation;
     • National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH);
     • Andrew Mellon Foundation;
     • Open Society Foundation;
     • Revson Foundation; and
     • the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


Now here’s the caveat. Just because you find something on the DPLA does not mean it’s in the public domain and free for us to use. Some of the content surely is — particularly items from the National Archives — but not everything. And it’s our responsibility as researchers to investigate the copyright status of the items we find to determine if we’re free to use them. The DPLA isn’t going to do that for us, although it does provide some guides.

First, the DPLA material generally is covered by the Creative Commons CC BY 3.0 License. That requires us to attribute the item if we use it and imposes other requirements explained in full in the license terms. Be warned: just about anything we might want to use (images, audio, etc.) is expressly excluded from that provision of the DPLA Terms of Service.2

Second, all other items are “subject to the rights granted within the metadata associated with each Visual Asset, if any. If you would like more information how to license these Visual Assets, please contact the relevant rights-holder.”3

Third, many of the items we can access through the library are actually housed on websites elsewhere and what we’re getting essentially is the display of what’s on that link. As to those items,

Those Third-Party Services are subject to the terms and conditions and privacy policies of the third parties that provide them, and DPLA is not responsible for the privacy practices, content, or functionality of the Third-Party Services. You are solely responsible for reading and complying with any licenses, restrictions, privacy policies, or other terms and conditions that govern the use of any Third-Party Services you choose to access, visit, or link to through your use of the Services, and are solely liable for any violations of those terms and conditions that arise out of or relate to your use of the Third-Party Services.4

And the actual rights may be layered. So, for example, when we access the Kentucke Gazette of 16 February 1788, the image provider is the Kentucky Digital Library, but the owning institution is the Lexington Public Library. And the rights statement (see the image here, and click on it to enlarge) says to use it again in print or electronically, we need permission.

That’s not a copyright claim — anything published in 1788 is long out of copyright — but is one of those contract claims we’ve discussed again and again in this blog. Terms of use, remember, are “the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it.”5

You’ll see these rights explanations on just about everything accessible through the DPLA. They provide guidance on whether the item we want to use is up for grabs or has limits. They may say, for example, “Images are to be used for educational purposes only, and are not to be reproduced without permission from (the originating institution)” or, for many federal documents, “Restrictions: Unrestricted; Use status: Unrestricted.”

In other words, this is a public library, but its holdings — like those of any library — may still be protected and can not just be assumed to be public domain. We all need to take care to respect the rights of the contributors of the content and any intellectual property rights of the authors and creators.

So always look at the rights statement, and stay on the safe side of the law.


  1. Dan Cohen, “Welcome to the Digital Public Library of America,” Digital Public Library of America, posted 18 Apr 2013 ( : accessed 18 Apr 2013).
  2. Terms of Service,” § 5.1 (Content Generally), Digital Public Library of America ( : accessed 18 Apr 2013).
  3. Ibid., § 5.3 (Visual Assets).
  4. Ibid., § 6 (Third-Party Services and Content).
  5. Judy G. Russell, “A terms of use intro,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 18 Apr 2013).
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