public domain books - grab 'em all!

A crash course on what it means when a book reaches the public domain.

Public domain books. You’ve heard of them, but you’re not sure what they are. Or you know what they are, but you have questions.

Either way, here’s a brief rundown on what it means for a book to be in the public domain.

Defining Public Domain

When you create something original, it belongs to you. In legal terms, it’s your intellectual property. Examples of intellectual property include:

  • Artwork
  • Music
  • Specific characters
  • Designs 
  • Writing

Because you own it, you get the primary benefit. To protect that benefit, copyright, patent, or trademark laws exist. These are in place to protect your rights as the creator or owner of creative materials.

However, creative materials aren’t all protected. When something creative isn’t protected, it’s part of the public domain. There, the work isn’t owned by one person. It’s owned by the public. 

In other words, public domain books belong to you as much as the next guy.

Public Domain and Your Liability

When a work is in the public domain, you can use it however you want. You can even make money off of it without getting permission and without any repercussions. After all, no one owns the work. So there’s no one to grant you permission. As a result, no one will sue you for quoting a public domain book. 

However, there is an exception. 

While individual works are part of the public domain, a collection of those works may be protected under copyright law. This occurs when someone publishes a group of select works from the public domain. When put together, this collection is the property of the publisher. That’s because legally, they used their creativity to compile the selected works. Odd? Yes. But it’s how things work.

So if you plan to publish a book of poems by your favorite public domain poet, be careful. Don’t use the same poems in the same order as someone else. You may get in trouble.

Pathways to the Public Domain

By now, you’re likely wondering how books enter the public domain. There’s more than one way. 

  1. A work’s copyright term expires. In the world of literature, books have a specific copyright term. They enter the public domain 70 years after the author’s death. 
  2. The owner dedicates their work to the public domain. This can take place at time of creation or later. 

Books in the Public Domain

January 1 is a big day every year. On that day, new books enter the public domain. Any book written by someone who died 70 years earlier loses ownership. Immediately, those books are available to the general public. As a result, thousands of books are currently in the public domain, including some of the greatest literature ever written. 

When a work enters the public domain, it’s free to read. It can also be freely quoted, copied, added to web copy, distributed, repurposed, reinvented, or republished. 

This means you can take a public domain book and recreate it to generate income. You can turn it into an eBook or audiobook. You can add illustrations and a new cover, turn it into a screenplay, or translate it into another language. Want to do something different? Transform it into a children’s book, publish a collection of the book’s quotes, or translate it into modern English. 

Why It Matters to Writers

Want to quote an old book extensively? Have plans to republish a public domain book with an updated cover and language? 

Go for it! Just be careful. Do your homework. Check the book’s copyright status and make sure the book is indeed in the public domain. Otherwise, you could be setting yourself up for a lawsuit.

Publish a Book with Staying Power

Want your book to make it into the public domain? You’ve got to publish first. If you have a book sitting on your computer that deserves to be on bookshelves, submit your manuscript to Argyle Fox Publishing for consideration. Who knows? Perhaps it will enter the public domain and get quoted and requoted for generations to come.