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 34 comments
  • Nicole Swan
    Reply

    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
      Reply

      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
    Reply

    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
      Reply

      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.

  • Patricia Butler
    Reply

    If I wanted to create an ebook from a book published prior to 1923, with attribution to the author, but with me as the seller, is that legal? (To be clear, I’m not talking about Hemingway, but more along the lines of an obscure author who just went by a first initial and common last name.)

    • Callum Downs
      Reply

      Hi Patricia,

      In general, all works published in the US before 1923 are copyright free, however you must check for yourself that each individual work is so. Some works may be exceptions. You can check out our help center article for more information.

      We cannot take any liability for any problems arising from you publishing a copyrighted book.

  • Patricia Butler
    Reply

    Also, I have a lot of old (mostly pre-1930s) handwritten diaries that I’d like to do something with. What, if anything, do I need to worry about?

    • Callum Downs
      Reply

      Hi again,

      Once again, you need to find out if they have been published and thus see if there is any copyright. If they have not been published, you must contact the author or relatives and do the necessary research to see who has claim to the rights.

      If you just publish without doing the research, you run the risk of being sued by the rightful owners.

  • Anthony
    Reply

    hi how can you help me can i or not use public domain in a book.

    Thanks
    Anthony

    • AC de Fombelle
      Reply

      Hi Anthony,

      If the work you want to publish or include in your book is indeed in public domain (always to be verified), yes you can! That’s the whole point of this article 🙂

  • Carla
    Reply

    Hi! Do you have any advice on how to write a notice of attribution for a public domain work included in an anthology? Thanks a million.

    • AC de Fombelle
      Reply

      Hello Carla! I don’t have a specific exemple of notice of attribution for this (although I know attributions should mention type of licence, author, title and link to source if relevant). Please note however that attributions are not mandatory for public domain books, like thy can be for creative commons. If the content you want to publish is indeed entirely in public domain, citing author and title is enough. If it’s a translated work – and the translation is also in Public domain – citing the translator would also be correct.

  • Joel Davis
    Reply

    Hello! So I’m currently formatting and editing a number of public works and re-editing for 10-13 year olds. A number of these books are ungodly long, but luckily, they’re split internally into smaller “books.”

    Is there anything against splitting some of the 200k+ word titles into smaller, more digestable bits for kids.

    P.S. This should go without saying, but no text would be changed whatsoever, just its delivery system.

    • AC de Fombelle
      Reply

      Hi Joel! Nothing against it at all 🙂 as long as you clearly state the parts of the book (part 1, part 2 etc.) and are sure those books are indeed in public domain, your initiative is very welcome!

      • Joel Davis
        Reply

        Awesome! Thanks!!

  • Brandon Nelms
    Reply

    how does one go about finding out what is public domain what isn’t ? with comics specifically? there a lot of the companies that are now defunct that published comics through the 1910s’- 1930’s

    • AC de Fombelle
      Reply

      Hi Brandon!
      The Internet is full of resources, searching for “comics public domain” you’ll soon find collections of books that are in public domain and the rules of copyright for comics. If you want to know if a specific title is in Public Domain, as suggested in the post above, type the title with “public domain” in searches and see what the Internet finds out.

      • Megan
        Reply

        Hi Brandon! Just following up on AC’s comment with a PS. You might want to do a search through the U.S. Copyright Office as well — https://www.copyright.gov/. Chances are if the comics were done as “works for hire” (meaning in most cases that the illustrator and author did not receive copyright on the work), and the company that published them is long defunct, then you’ve got what’s often referred to as an orphan work on your hands. But you never know! It’s best to investigate.

    • Megan Hustad
      Reply

      Hi Brandon! Just following up on AC’s comment with a PS. You might want to do a search through the U.S. Copyright Office as well — https://www.copyright.gov/. Chances are if the comics were done as “works for hire” (meaning in most cases that the illustrator and author did not receive copyright on the work), and the company that published them is long defunct, then you’ve got what’s often referred to as an orphan work on your hands. But you never know! It’s best to investigate.

  • Andy
    Reply

    Hi, can you publish a mashup on Amazon of an old classic like was done with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Where you make the original author a co-author and interject a different story line for a book written in the late 1800’s.

    • AC de Fombelle
      Reply

      Hi Andy!
      If the book was in fact written in the late 1800’s, it is most probably in Public Domain (always have to be doubled checked however). In this case, I’d say you’d actually not put the original author as co-author, but rather write something like “inspired by the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice”, or “based on” or “adapted from”. This is if we are talking about a major mashup like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was.

  • sm
    Reply

    hi,
    if I write an introduction and an epilogue and make some changes to the text of a book, do I still need to credit the original author? I do make sure always that the book is in public domain, but can I revamp and publish in my name?

  • Bridget
    Reply

    Hi, I’m very interested in re-publishing a book but I’m wondering if I can slightly change the title of the book or add to the title? or do I need to keep the author and title the same as the original works?.
    and if I use you guys to self-publish do you take a percentage of book sales or one-off charge?

    Cheers

  • Bridget
    Reply

    If you are translating a book, and it differs slightly because of the translation, does that mean you should also use the term “a story based on [author’s name]’s [title]” ?

    • Megan Hustad
      Reply

      Hi Bridget! It’s always best to credit the original author, and to acknowledge the original title. It doesn’t detract from your contribution, but it’s just best practice — and it really doesn’t serve you well to have an annoyed reader who feels tricked into buying a book with near identical content to one they may already have. All in all please make sure it’s in the public domain and it’s free to use!

      For translations, I’d say “a story based on” is misleading, because that could be interpreted to mean that it’s anything from a quasi-sequel to fan fiction. Obviously I don’t know the extent of the variations you’re describing, but my guess is that you can probably just say that it’s your translation, pure and simple. Any translators here? Please weigh in!

  • Mike
    Reply

    Hi, if you add a new forward, and author bio, and a new cover to a public domain book you wish to publish,what do you put as a copywrite date? Original (ex: 1866)?
    Thank you!

    • Megan Hustad
      Reply

      Hi Mike: On the copyright page you can add separate copyright lines for a new foreword. So you’d have the original copyright date, e.g. 1866, plus the copyright date for the new foreword, e.g. 2018. The author bio typically doesn’t warrant a separate copyright, unless it’s really extensive and unique and something you think has commercial value in and of itself. (And that would be exceedingly, exceedingly rare.)

      In any event, sounds intriguing! Please update us once you’ve published it.

  • David
    Reply

    Hi AC,
    Background with question ?
    I’m 2002, I discovered a treasure of historical periodicals in a well known Washington DC Library, some prior 1923, rest prior 1943. Finally 2017, returned to Washington DC, this time went to Library of Congress , Martin Building, spent two weeks methodically researching copyright status’s, written request for dated periodical record books, of each, (42 periodicals), discovering major publisher’s, author’s photographer’s, did “NOT” renew copyrights at the required 28 year mark, making all legally in public domain.
    I have a research project E Book ( digital ) been working on since 1998 and would like to use these public domain periodicals within E Book ( small nominal fee charged ) as published supporting referenced material to the research project E Book in E Commerce, legally !
    Can I republish these public domain periodicals in my E Book, simply give reference ( specific attribution ) in each public domain case and use within my literary researched project publication legally and not have any problems with such use in public domain ? Original works are not mine, I am legally referencing ( specific attribution ) each of the 42, and want to use them republished within my own literary work. I would have copyright on my literary work E Book, but NOT implied in any way of the supporting public domain historical periodicals that support my historical research project publication !
    I want to be sure about public domain use legally within a new copyrighted publication, can you assist with correct answer ? ( or do I need to consult a Copyright Attorney ) ? Not confused at all, just found this site forum, is a valid legal question, maybe you can confirm one way or the other ? I was under legal impression of public domain law I could do this legally without public domain violations as long as published in stated above referenced specific case by case attribution fashion within my own publication ! Rare find, awesome respectfully, not interested in any public domain use violations ever ! Not to repeat myself above, just to make sure ! Thank you very much ! Look forward to listening hearing reading receiving your legal informative response ! Apologize for quick type punctuation errors ! David

    • AC de Fombelle
      Reply

      Hi David!

      Sounds like you did everything right, making sure the works are indeed in public domain so: YES absolutely, you can use them in your work, for sure! Good luck with your work and have an awesome week.

      AC

  • Michael
    Reply

    Can i sell an ebook from public domain book keeping the original title of the book and the name of the author? Thank you very much of your reply.

    • AC de Fombelle
      Reply

      Hi Michael! Yes definitely. You actually should keep original title and name of the author, you become the publisher of this one version of the book. That’s what publishing public domain is all about. There are more details in the post above if you need them.

  • Gregg
    Reply

    Hi,

    Can I get some advice about crating audio books for books that are pre-1923 (Actually that law has been extended to longer than going back to 1923.) regarding public domain.

    So, to be safe, if a book is say from 1900 or older, is it legal to crate audio books from the original text?

    Even if this includes classic books. Is this legally possible to do? Say I am seeking to create an audio book that is older than 1900, and compare it to original content of my own. Creating a digital product to sell, that is worth the effort?
    Thanks, Gregg

    Can someone define exactly what the public domain is? Does this mean that since a book has no pictures for the audio book, other than a cover page, (maybe).

  • Morris
    Reply

    Hi Bridget, I find this article very fascinating an helpful. I can a specific question. We are working to create a children’s picture book based on the three billy goats Gruff. We are changing the title and changing the story’s end in a significant way. When we create the title page how do you name the author? Should we used “adapted by” or “re-told by” or “re-written by”. Not sure what the most ethical way to cite the author’s name.

    Thanks so much for your time.
    Morris

  • Matt McCormick
    Reply

    Hey, If I was to re-illustrate a public domain book and publish it on say, Amazon for example.. is my new illustrated book protected by all usual copyrights (it would be in U.K) thanks!

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