The US government should release these 7,584 fruit paintings

The federal government is sitting on 7,584 historical agricultural watercolor paintings that it should make freely available to the public today. Currently, people have access only to low-quality previews of the images; the United States Department of Agriculture, where the archive is held, should serve the public interest by making the entire collection of high quality scans free for all.

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The USDA’s National Agricultural Library hosts the Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains images of different varieties of fruits and nuts, commissioned between 1886 and 1942.

They’re remarkable as art, and also have serious scientific importance: they are some of the only documentation, for example, of thousands of apple types that no longer exist. The USDA has called the Pomological Watercolor Collection “Perhaps the most attractive as well as historically important of NAL’s treasures,” and it was cited just this week in a Washington State University article about apple preservation efforts.

The public should have access to these images, and that access should be automatic and unrestricted. Fortunately, that is technically possible: the USDA, through a grant from an environmental non-profit called The Ceres Trust, went though a multi-year digitization effort and now has high-quality scans of every image. However, members of the public can currently only view low-resolution versions online, can only request up to three high-quality scans free of charge, and must pay $10 per file beyond that.

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And though the order page touts the fact that a portion of proceeds will go to conservation efforts, the numbers just don’t add up. I suspected that conservation costs are orders of magnitude higher than reproduction revenues, so I asked. Through a FOIA request to the USDA, I obtained the digitization project report, as well as a breakdown of the last three and a half years of revenues that the collection has generated.

Digitizing the images cost $288,442. Since the collection went online in 2011, members of the public have ordered just 81 images, for a total of $565. That relatively tiny amount simply cannot justify the cost to the public of keeping these images behind a paywall.

There’s no question that these paintings, if made more available, could be creating value for the public. High quality images could be used in printed teaching materials, which can spur conservation efforts and spark agricultural research interests in students. They could illustrate relevant articles on Wikipedia, providing historical context from over a hundred years of agriculture. The high quality scans could be examined closely by independent researchers to turn up new information.

The collection could even expand if it is accessible enough, as the National Agricultural Library described in its own report: one researcher, on hearing about the digitization project, contributed seven contemporaneous paintings of blueberries that had been stored in his lab.

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Again, here’s the USDA’s own words on the importance of public access to the collection:

With today’s growing interest in heirloom varieties and others that are no longer commonly grown, the collection is an invaluable storehouse of fruit knowledge and history.

That knowledge is better served if the public has access to the scans, and it’s possible to do that today. If the cost of hosting and bandwidth is an issue, the Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons would almost certainly be willing to host even the highest resolution scans.

Public domain victory! SpaceX photos now belong to you

It’s an exciting time for photographs from space. Last month, when Elon Musk’s privately held company SpaceX posted photos taken during a successful satellite launch, I noted that, unlike every picture NASA has ever taken, these wouldn’t enter the public domain immediately by default. It may have been an unintended side effect of the copyright rule about government works, but for whatever reason the public domain grew with each space photo, and that would be stopping. That’s a bummer, and I called for Elon Musk to fix it by dedicating his company’s new photos to the public domain.

This month, we’ve had a victory in two parts. First, after press inquiries and the like, SpaceX announced that it would be opening a repository of photos on Flickr, and that beyond just allowing public access, it would release those photos under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license. I don’t love NonCommercial licenses for a lot of reasons, but still, that was a nice show of good faith and I appreciated that a major company would take the effort.

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But then another remarkable thing happened. When Musk tweeted about putting those photos online, somebody replied suggesting the public domain—and then Musk agreed. It was a remarkable exchange, and just a few minutes later he declared that he’d changed the license.

There was some confusion, as Flickr doesn’t generally allow photos to be marked as truly public domain—that would require a CC0 waiver, or a declaration that the photos otherwise have no restrictions—so on that platform they were instead set to the most permissive license available, Creative Commons Attribution. Jessamyn West wrote a great post explaining how that meant that the photos weren’t really in the public domain, for some purposes.

But on SpaceX’s own site, they are clearly marked with a CC0 waiver. And as such, they’ve been uploaded to platforms like the Wikimedia Commons, where they can bear the same freedoms. This may be a small campaign—targeting just one company, and not changing any systemic policies—but the victory is real and exciting. Thank you, Elon Musk, for setting an example and helping to grow the public domain.

Anonymous speech could be caught in the online abuse crossfire

Over at Wired, I wrote a piece earlier this month responding to reports from Tor users that they were having trouble using Twitter anonymously. It bears noting that we don’t really know what exactly Twitter’s up to, but given the timing of these events (and the fact that they can be consistently, if not universally, reproduced), it seems that this might be an attempt to crack down on abuse.

Not only will that not work, but it would do real harm to valuable speech that relies on anonymity. From the article:

Unfortunately, some voices can be so profoundly silenced by a pierced veil of anonymity that they won’t be around to protest unannounced updates. For instance, activists and journalists in countries where Twitter is forbidden use Tor to circumvent the censorship technology that blocks the site, and to do so without being traceable by the national internet service providers and phone network operators. Changes that make it harder to use Twitter and Tor in combination end up doing real harm to some of the speech that is most marginalized.

The fact that we can’t tell for sure whether Twitter has targeted this speech intentionally raises more issues about the transparency we need to see in online algorithms. But even if this is an unintentional side-effect of a different policy, it’s important to recognize that hindering anonymous speech in any case comes at a great cost.

How the New York Times keeps tragedies ad-free

I was looking at the HTML source of a recent New York Times story about a tragic plane accident—150 people feared dead—and noticed this meta tag in its head:

<meta property="ad_sensitivity" content="noads" />

There are no Google results for the tag, so it looks like it hasn’t been documented, but it seems like a pretty low-tech way to keep possibly insensitive ads off a very sensitive story—an admirable effort. It’s interesting in part because it’s almost an acknowledgement that ads are invasive and uncomfortable. They cross over into the intolerable range when we’re emotionally vulnerable from a tragic story. Advertisers know this too, and the New York Times might stipulate in contracts they’ll try to keep ads off sensitive pages.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is probably a manual switch in their CMS. It would be interesting to see what sorts of stories get dubbed unfit for ads, though scraping enough article pages to get that information might raise some eyebrows on that side of the paywall.

(This information, by the way, doesn’t have to be exposed for keeping ads off pages they serve. But it could help with debugging, and definitely could be useful for syndication and maybe even displaying in official apps.)

This isn’t the first example of companies declining to advertise against tragedies. Five years ago a user documented that Gmail doesn’t show ads on emails that contain words from a certain blacklist, at a certain density—one sensitive word per 167 “normal” words.

update, 25 March: The Tragedy Tag

Since I originally posted this yesterday, two interesting things have happened. One is that current and former Times employees have confirmed my guess that this is a manual CMS switch (dating back to at least 2003), and people familiar with the CMSes at other publications like The Guardian have said there are similar systems in place.

The other thing is that the tragic story that prompted this took a turn for the worse, and the deaths that were once suspected have been confirmed. The HTML tag has been updated from "noads" to "tragedy", which employees have confirmed is the third and final position on the switch.

25 treasures from the public domain

Throughout the month of February, I thought it would be fun to share something cool from the public domain each day. I didn’t quite hit all 28 days—here and there I’d go a little too long without getting to my computer—but I ended up with a collection of really cool things.

I shared them on Twitter with the hashtag #pdtotd, which I imagined stood for “public domain thing of the day,” but I never explained what I was doing. My friend Zara took a look at it and guessed it actually stood for  “public domain treasure of the day,” which seems like a better fit. Here are some of the things I shared.

1. Images from the New York World-Telegram & Sun

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The NY W-T&S dedicated a collection of photos to the public domain, including portraits of civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This seemed like an appropriate way to kick off Black History Month.

2. Extinct Birds (1907)

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Beautiful pictures of birds already extinct over a century ago, scanned by the Internet Archive and hosted on Flickr.

3. Anti-Suffrage postcards

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As I tweeted, the early 20th-century anti-Suffrage movement had “strong misandry game”. These historical postcards are interesting artifacts and freely available.

4. Highlights from the New York Public Library’s maps collection

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NYPL has put some 20,000 maps online, with no known restrictions. The Public Domain Review, which I consulted a few times throughout this project, picked out some highlights.

5. NASA’s Apollo sounds

Original audio from NASA missions, including the famous “Houston, we’ve had a problem” and of course “One small step for man.”

6. Fundamentals of Rural Surveillance (1993)

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The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center made this somewhat dated PSA on rural surveillance tactics, which I found as part of the Fedflix collection.

7. Kunstformen der Natur (1904)

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Beautiful illustrations from Ernst Haeckel’s book on natural forms. All available in high resolution from the Wikimedia Commons.

8. Unsplash photos

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Every 10 days, Unsplash releases 10 new high quality, high-res photos into the public domain. They’ve been doing it for almost two years now, and have quite a collection.

9. Landsat8 satellite photos

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The Landsat photos of Earth show remarkable natural landscapes from above. Charlie Loyd has built an interface to view the latest photos.

10. The Video Cellar

The Video Cellar collects movies that have fallen into the public domain or that were never subject to copyright restrictions, as a popular YouTube channel.

11. 3D stereograms of Neanderthal skulls

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One of the finds from the Public Domain Review’s excellent essay collection, the story behind the GIFs is even more impressive than the images themselves.

12. Fantasmagori (1908)

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This is probably the first ever animated film, and it’s delightfully silly and strange. It wouldn’t take much to make this feel very modern and new.

13. Animal sounds from the Tierstimmenarchiv

The Berlin Natural History Museum has an animal sounds archive posted online, with 600 sounds from a wide variety of animals. Some are very mundane, but many are quite exotic. (h/t to Zara on this one.)

14. Emblems of Love in Four Languages (1683)

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A book full of pictures of Cupid, etc, posted on Valentine’s Day.

15. Thomas Edison’s patent illustrations

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Thomas Edison’s patents were bound together in a book, which was scanned many years later by the Internet Archive. The illustrations are quite striking.

16. Early US currency

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The $20 bill has looked about the same throughout my entire life, but it went through some really significant changes 150 years ago.

17. DOT pictograms

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Developed in 1974, these images are now a standard visual language. As with most standards, it works better when it’s free for everybody to use.

18. The USDA’s Pomological Watercolor Collection

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Over 7,500 watercolors from around the turn of the 20th century, depicting various species of fruits and nuts, and commissioned for the US government. This is an amazing collection.

19. Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu, 1848

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From the National Agricultural Library’s special collection comes this 1848 book of illustrations of full-size scenes and dwarf potted plants.

20. Screenshots of the Superfish vulnerability

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In order to get legitimate information out about this security vulnerability as quickly as possible, @ErrataRob committed his screenshots to the public domain so journalists writing on deadline wouldn’t have to worry about getting in touch for permission.

21. Alex Wild’s insect shots

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Alex Wild does all sorts of insect photography, and has a small collection of impressive shots he’s committed to the public domain.

22. Free Music Archive’s Revitalize Music Contest entries

All of the entries to this contest are new covers of public domain tunes. Entrants were required to release their new recordings into the public domain as well.

23. “Cabinet Cards” from the Houghton Library

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Harvard’s Houghton Library has a wacky set of images from the theater collection’s 100,000+ cabinet cards. Some of the highlights are up at the Public Domain Review.

24. The Fleischer Superman cartoons

The 1940s Superman cartoons made at the Fleischer and Famous studios are classics in the genre.

25. Birds of America from the Audubon Society

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The Audubon Society has put high quality scans of prints from its namesake John James Audubon’s book “Birds of America” online.