How Etsy Sellers and Big Business Make Money on Public Domain Art

Content in the public domain isn’t just legal to download for free. It’s also legal to sell.

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Jan 7 2019, 6:28pm

Image: Screenshot from the Etsy shop Arts Cult, edited by Caroline Haskins.

On January 1 of this year, tens of thousands of books, academic papers, movies, and other forms of media published in 1923 entered the public domain, meaning that it’s both legal and free to download and use them however you want.

2019 marks the first year since the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was passed in 1998 that we’ve seen a huge number of works enter the public domain.

Last week, Motherboard published a piece that showed you where to download a huge quantity of books and academic papers published in 1923. But it is not only legal to use content that has entered that public domain; it’s also legal to sell this content.

And some people have figured out how to turn reselling public domain content into side hustles.

On Etsy, there are thousands of listings for downloadable prints and lithographs that are in the public domain. The concept is pretty simple: these merchants round up and download the most visually beautiful art in the public domain, and then sell prints on Etsy. But some of them don’t even go that far and just sell digital files of the art. Then, the buyers can print out the prints at whichever size they want and use them as they please.

For instance, the Etsy sites Art Vintages, Arts Cult, and Antique Stock have hundreds of thousands of listings for downloadable prints of plants, birds, reptiles, shells, and about a dozen other nature-related categories. The stores have 10,000, 441, and 30,026 sales respectively at time of publication. (Art Vintages and Arts Cult appear to be run by the same person, as one of the websites listed on Etsy for Art Vintages directs the user to the Arts Cult website.) Depending on the listing, buyers can buy a single print, or download prints in bulk as ZIP files.

Prints from the store Art Vintages.
Image: Screenshot from ArtVintages by Caroline Haskins.

It’s not that you can’t get these prints for free, but many people don’t have the time to sift through archives and easily find the best ones. However, these shops aren’t always profitable for their owners.

Consider the Etsy shop Ephemera Papers, which sells prints and digital downloads of maps, including ones that were published in 1923. The merchant of the store, Erin Trampel, told Motherboard that they don’t really make any money off the site.

“I think I had a net profit from both of my etsy stores, the other of which I sell my own designs, of about $400,” Trampel told Motherboard. “The only reason that store is even still open is because all of the listings are self-sufficient.”

Trampel told Motherboard that the maps are all from old Atlas books that they scanned and cleaned up digitally. “It took a couple days to scan each atlas and probably a week to edit them and a few more days to make the listings, so probably about 80 hours worth of work just for the digital listings for one atlas,” she said. “I added the print listings this year, but they haven't really sold any, and it probably took me about 40 hours to get those set up.”

Listings from Ephemera Papers.
Image: Screenshot from Ephemera Papers taken by Caroline Haskins.

People on other platforms are also selling products in the public domain as tangible products, not as JPEGs or ZIP files. The site Society6—which allows individual artists to sell their art as prints, posters, pillows, duvet covers, and pretty much every other product imaginable to consumers—has several listings for art that’s in the public domain.

For instance, “Traverse Line” and “Composition VIII,” works of art created by prolific Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky in 1923 (meaning they are now in the public domain), are listed on Society6 in the form of t-shirts, art-prints, tote bags, tank tops, and about a dozen other types of products. But keep in mind that Society6 keeps 90 percent of purchase earnings, meaning that even if someone sells a more high-end product at full price, like a $120 comforter, the seller only gets $12 of that money.

Society6 listing for a Composition VIII print comforter.
Image: Screenshot from Society6 by Caroline Haskins.

With that being said, there’s also big companies like Walmart that are also trying to earn money off art in the public domain. For instance, consider the works “Septemvri” by Ivan Milev or “Country Road Makers” by Tom Roberts. Both works are in the public domain. But Walmart is selling prints of these works for upwards of $99 and $135, respectively. Similarly, the Museum of Modern Art is selling “Red Canna” by Georgia O’Keeffe, which is now in the public domain, for $166.50 (on sale from $185). For the love of god, don’t pay $166.50 for something you could download for free and print yourself for less than $16.

Georgia O'Keeffe painting listing on the MoMA online store.

Image: Screenshot from the MoMA Design Store by Caroline Haskins.

Of course, none of this is bad necessarily. The public domain exists in part so that people can give formerly copyrighted works new life—sometimes an iconic painting simply needs to become a bedspread. But now that many new works are available for free, it’s worth having a quick look around if you’re thinking of buying vintage art. You might be able to get it for free elsewhere.

Correction Jan. 7, 2018 4:55 PM: a previous version of this article stated that Society6 keeps 10 percent of earnings from purchases on its site. We have corrected the article to reflect that Society6 keeps 90 percent of earnings from purchases on its site.