Publishing Public Domain books: Yes you can!

 In Tips & Tricks

The process and ethics to publish books fallen into public domain

Did you always dream to have your own book collection, gathering the classics you grew up with, giving an editorial line to your collection thanks to the personal literary choices you make?
The same way you always saw big Publishing Houses put old books under the spotlights in a new modern way, you are also allowed to do so.

Of course, you need to make sure you actually have every right to publish those books, meaning all the content you are about to publish (not only the original text but also the covers, translations, etc.) needs to be in public domain in every country where you intend to publish it. This verification process can be a bit tricky and here are a few things to help you out, plus some rules you should be aware of before publishing:

How to be sure a book is in public domain

Protected booksCopyrights are a truly important set of laws protecting an author’s work and its use. We are helping books be spread worldwide to save the book. By the same token, protecting and ensuring the respect of copyright is part of our mission.

Some general laws apply for books and will help you ascertain if a book has fallen into public domain or not. However, these laws vary from country to country and you need to be sure you have the right to publish the book in all the countries you intend to publish it into*.

You can find here a list of countries’ copyright lengths to first give you an idea whether there is a chance the book is in public domain or not.

These rules allow you to rule out books not aligned with those but do not confirm that a book is indeed in public domain because there are a lot of exceptions. You can be almost sure that a book published in 1996 isn’t in public domain anywhere. However, the reverse reasoning isn’t necessary right. A book written by an author who died in 1943 isn’t necessarily in public domain in Italy even if his death is more than 70 years ago. There may be a special extension for this author or for this one specific book. Knowing it passed the years where it was anyway under copyrights is only the first step.

Here are a few websites and tools that can help you:

If you can’t find the information yourself in any of these ways, you can ask us for help but just know that we would do the same manual search so it may take us a bit of time.


* If you wish to publish a book only in some countries here is how:

  • If you are a publishing house using our Publish tool: you’ll be able to select the countries where each book is published in your publishing form.
  • If you are using our SelfPublish tool, we are in the process of adding this same tool for you but, in the meantime, please send us the reference of the book you want to publish only in some countries with the list of the countries where it should be published (you can say “worldwide except in the United States and Canada” or “Only in France, Italy and Spain” depending on what’s the most convenient)

Translated work:

“ The original work and the translation are each entitled to copyright – copyright in the translation belongs to the translator and exists in addition to, rather than instead of, the copyright in the underlying work.”

Meaning, a translation has its own copyrighted period and copyright owner: the translator. He is the one to contact for permissions. Then the same copyright rules apply to the translator than the ones applying to the author.

Amazon public domain publishing rules:

amazon_kindle_logoAmazon has very specific rules regarding public domain books and, if you wish your books to be published there, they have to meet their expectations:

  • The book version you publish has to be differentiated from an original version, in at least one of these ways:
    • (Translated) – A unique translation
    • (Annotated) – Contains annotations (unique, hand-crafted additional content including study guides, literary critiques, detailed biographies, or detailed historical context)
    • (Illustrated) – Includes 10 or more unique illustrations relevant to the book
  • The book, meeting these criteria must include (Translated), (Annotated), or (Illustrated) in the title field

Google Play Store content policy:

googleplay_store_logo“Content comprised predominantly of public domain material is not accepted due to its widespread duplication. Multiple versions of the same book confuse our users and provide little distinguishing value.”

When publishing a book in public domain through StreetLib, and checking the box “Public domain book”, this book will thus not be published on Google Play.

Public domain (2)

Publishing general ethics

protect booksHere are a few rules to respect when publishing public domain books not only because you could get in trouble not following them but mainly because it’s just wrong to do otherwise:

  • Create your own book files: find the original text and then format the eBook or Paper book yourself. There are great tools online to do so, such as of course our very own StreetLib Write which is completely free. Don’t go downloading the free ePub somewhere and then upload it as your own. Why?
    • Mainly because there is a chance the ePub you downloaded is crap, it’d be foolish to resell it as it is when you can get a beautiful book file with a little bit of work.
    • Also because you need to be sure the content is respected, that there are no images inside that you don’t own the rights to, etc.
    • And finally, because it’s only right to do the publisher’s work if you intend to be a publisher: formatting is part of it.
    • Plus, think about the creativity you can put into it. You could really create a unique collection (and therefore have something special to promote amidst the whole pool of public domain publishers of the world)
  • Choose your own cover image. Yes, the law allows you to use the same stock images or nonproprietary pictures as another publisher doing the same thing you’re doing with the exact same book. However, that’s not the best decision.
    • First, that’s not too clever because you aren’t retaining your audience who won’t be able to distinguish you from another publisher (and thus may not choose you for the next book). So, business-wise I wouldn’t advise it.
    • Then, it’s just not right. If you are committing to create a book collection, actually create. You may not be the creator of the content of the books but there is a huge place for your creativity: enjoy it and really choose a picture or image you think depicts the book you are publishing. Maybe even work with a cover designer and guide their art toward what you are looking for and imagining. (If you want an inspirational pep-talk on designing covers I highly recommend Chip Kidd’s Ted Talk)
  • Create your own cover layout (follow-up on the previous point). You can’t actually reproduce a cover layout (the fonts chosen, the colors applied, the elements distribution on the cover, etc.) as it can very well be protected by its own copyright. Plus, once again, your creativity.
  • The Final point actually sums up the main point of this post: don’t ever publish a book before you have 100% confirmation that you have the right to do so.
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Showing 4 comments
  • Nicole Swan

    Would one legally be permitted to make slight changes to the story line of a public domain book and publish it on Amazon? If so, would it still be permitted to use the original title?

    • AC de Fombelle

      As far as I know, you can use the story of a public domain book as you wish. However, you can’t keep the author’s name and title in that case. You’d have to write something like “a story based on [author’s name]’s [title]”. You should actually check for the specific protection history of the book you wish to modify. Even among public domain books, some have specific protection in the ways they can be used, etc.

  • William Zammit

    Can one download 200-300 year old books (say from google books) and make them available full-text on another public academic database?

    • AC de Fombelle

      Hi William!

      The way you acquire a text is up to you, getting it from another publisher is fair, as long as you make sure to use only the content that is in fact in public domain (annotations, illustrations, translations, even book design can be subject to their own copyrights.) Make sure to make your own book from the public domain content, not just to duplicate an existing book and making it your own.

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