New Study: Use of Public Domain Images on Wikipedia Worth Millions of Dollars Each Year

June 22, 2015

Images from public-domain resources used to illustrate English-language Wikipedia pages are worth some $208 million on equivalent commercial platforms each year, according to a new study presented at WIPO.

Creators seeking resources for new media products via crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter are also using public-domain resources to create new value, according to the 2015 study “Copyright and the Value of the Public Domain,” commissioned by the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office and presented at WIPO on June 16 (video on YouTube) by Kris Erickson of the University of Glasgow, a report author.

“In the intellectual property system, there is this inherent balance that policy makers try to strike between, on the one hand, giving incentives toward creative and inventive activity, and on the other hand, recognizing that creative works and inventions have public-good characteristics and should be disseminated as widely as possible,” said WIPO Chief Economist Carsten Fink in introducing the program and setting the context for the discussion.

Messrs. Fink and Erickson (Photo WIPO)

Mr. Fink noted the difficulty in defining and quantifying the public domain – generally that which is not protected by IP rights, such as written or photographic content that isn’t covered by copyright.

“Bits of information free for uptake by all,” is how Mr. Erickson broadly characterized the public domain, which he said could be used by creators to increase the value of their work.

The study probed crowd-funded media projects on Kickstarter, finding the most successful use of public-domain material in project proposals for theatre, video games and comics. And many creators successfully mixed public-domain with licensed material to obtain funding for their projects.

Mr. Erickson said the successful use of public-domain content in crowd-funding could be considered “counterintuitive” since the “ethos is to fund people who are not mainstream.”

He cited an “information asymmetry” between creators and funders, since “the funder doesn't know if the pitch-creator will take all the money and run off.”

He said creators sent a signal of quality and seriousness to potential funders by properly clearing copyright of third-party material.

For English-language Wikipedia, the report says that about half of the randomly sampled pages contained images, with 87 percent using images cited to the public domain: “Whether using a measure based on saved licensing fees or costs saved in locating and shooting photos, we are comfortable with estimating a cost savings in the neighborhood of USD $208 million (GDP £138 million) per year based on the saved fees rationale.”

Mr. Erickson said he hoped readers of his report would recognize the value of the public domain, and its increasing use, particularly in promoting and realizing the potential of innovation and creativity.