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Public Domain Books Copyright and Royalty Free

Updated on February 3, 2016
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Copyright and Royalty Free Books in the Public Domain

Old and rare books that once were too fragile to handle, are now available to be viewed thanks to technology. Thousands of old books are being scanned by libraries, universities and organizations like Project Gutenberg, all around the world. The digital world we live in is preserving these old books forever. No more need to keep these books away from fingers that might soil their fragile pages or protect them from extremes of temperature and humidity. Computers have changed all that.

These books are now available to anyone, anywhere if you have a computer and internet access.Public domain books are books that have had their copyright expire. They are no longer protected by law from being copied and reused. In other words the works are free for anyone to use in any manner. That means you can use the pictures and the words in them in any way you want without having permission and you don't have to attribute the work to anyone. Public domain means it can be used freely by anyone, for whatever purpose whether that is commercial, use on a website, re-purposing it, or using derivatives of it. The book pictured, Goody Two-Shoes is just one of thousands of books that are in the public domain.

Free to use image from Goody Two-Shoes
Free to use image from Goody Two-Shoes

What can you do with public domain books?

How to profit from the public domain

You can take any public domain book, reprint it, and sell it online, in a bookstore, or anywhere. You can profit from it or you can give them away. You can copy parts of it, or all of it. You can also take one of these old books, change the wording, change the title, update the story and say you are the author of it. Imagine how many books you could write? Though I wouldn't be too quick to jump on this idea as thousands of people have already come up with the idea before you. The competition is tough and the market is already saturated with them.

I've seen websites that have taken some of the romance novels written years ago, spruced them up, changed the cover and modernized the wording and then put them up for sale. It's all legal. Other websites take the illustrations out of these public domain books such as The Public Domain Treasure Hunter and then sell them. They are an endless source of free book pictures. Public domain books are an untapped wealth for self publishers.

Disney has made millions taking from public domain stories and making them into movies. So there's lots of potential out there to make some money off of these old works, be inventive, be creative and you never know what may happen.

Free to use image from Goody Two-Shoes
Free to use image from Goody Two-Shoes

The legal stuff

Always read the fine print

If you were to take a public domain book, make a new cover for it and re-publish it, you do not automatically become the copyright holder of that work. You would retain the copyright on the cover of the book because it is a new creation, but the words of the book would still remain in the public domain. If you re-publish the book, put your name on it, you can't then claim the copyright for it. In other words you can't copyright public domain works. The exception would be if you changed the original wording substantially then you would have copyright on the derivative work.

You are free however, to take the book re-publish it, and sell it again. You can make money off the work. You can use these free book pictures to make posters, greeting cards, or whatever you can think of and profit from it. Let's say you found a picture in the public domain and printed it on a greeting card and made millions of dollars selling these greeting cards. Then along comes someone else and takes the same picture and prints it on a greeting card. Can you sue for copyright infringement? No. The picture is in the public domain and you don't own the copyright to the image. So if you are profiting from using public domain works there is no protection for you if someone comes along and does the same thing you are. If you altered the public domain picture and someone copied it, then in that case there is copyright infringement because the derivative would be copyrighted.

I've seen many websites re-selling public domain books. There are many on Amazon as well. So many in fact that Amazon clamped down on the works that were being reproduced. Many websites are claiming copyright to these books and images because they are charging a fee for them. Technically the only thing they can copyright is any original work that went into the reproduction and the design of the book if they have changed the typeface and layout.

Free to use image from Goody Two Shoes
Free to use image from Goody Two Shoes

How do you know what is in the public domain?

Check, check and check again

Copyright law is very complicated. It gets even more complicated because the laws vary from country to country. So if you are using a public domain book from another country you'll need to check that it also complies with the copyright law in the country you live in.

I live in Canada so I know I can use books that have entered into the public domain freely as long as they were published in Canada. Canadian laws state that works pass into the public domain 50 years after the death of an author. Some other countries use 70 years. So let's say I'm interested in a book where the author died in 1960 (52 years ago), by Canadian law that book would be in the public domain, but if that book was published in a country where the copyright existed for 70 years after an author died, then I have to also comply with the laws of that country. In other words if I used the book I'd be infringing on copyright. Conversely, if a book is in the public domain in another country and the author died, say, 40 years ago, then I couldn't use the book either because it doesn't comply with Canadian copyright laws which state the author has to have been dead for 50 years.

Then it get more complicated. An author may have died and had all their works pass into public domain. Then, say 80 years later some of their previously unpublished work is discovered and subsequently published. In this case, there is then copyright on newly published works. You can see how assuming that just because an author has been dead for century that all their works are in the public domain could get you into trouble. Copyright law can be very complicated so check and double check the work you are using is completely within the public domain.

Sometimes the publication date and where it was published, is clearly noted in the book, but often times it isn't so clear. It pays to investigate thoroughly to ensure the copyright has expired. Go back to the source and check. Don't rely solely on websites that claim they are public domain books, because they may not be. There's lots of copyright infringement on the internet.

Public Domain Treasure Hunter's Survival Kit - How to make money using the public domain

Source

Learn all about the vast hidden treasures of copyright free books, images, music and film that are available in the public domain. All of these are free for the taking including repackaging and selling as your own products. The public domain has millions and millions of pages of content with no licensing fees. You can sell your products and never have to pay royalities. Learn how to identify public domain works and sell them with Public Domain Treasure Hunter's Survival Kit.

Free to use image from Goody Two-Shoes
Free to use image from Goody Two-Shoes

What public domain books are not

The ins and out of public domain usage

A public domain book is a book in which the copyright has expired. The book is old enough that it has entered into the public domain where it is no longer protected from being copied and re-used. Many people wrongly believe that because the internet is available to the public everything on the internet is available to be copied and used however you want it. They think because something is on the internet it is in the public domain. This is not true and you are violating copyright laws if you use a picture or copy the words from a website and use them as your own. For example I have used the back cover of Goody Two-Shoes in my introduction on this page. This book is in the public domain so I can use it here and I don't have to credit any source for it. If I had used one of the back covers from a Harry Potter book instead, I would have been violating copyright laws. Even if I had used the Harry Potter back cover with the appropriate credit I would still be violating copyright laws if I did not first obtain permission to do so.

With ebooks being so popular and easy to make many people write books and then offer them for free over the internet. This does not mean that the contents of the book are free to use as you see fit, it simply means that the price of the book is free. Even though the price of the book is free the contents are still copyrighted. They only exception to this is that sometimes an author may write a book and then release it into the public domain. In that case the works are free to use without credit to the author because they have allowed that.

Most of the public domain books are scanned and submitted by volunteers. Unfortunately the books are usually not scanned at a high resolution so when you copy the images out of these books the quality isn't good enough to print large posters or framed pictures. There are occasionally exceptions to this but those images are hard to find.

Free to use image from Goody Two Shoes
Free to use image from Goody Two Shoes

When it's in the public domain but not free to use

It can get complicated

There are many libraries, museums and institutions that offer public domain material over the internet, however this material may not be totally free to use even though it's in the public domain. Often the institution offering the material may state that you can't use the book or image that they are allowing viewing of, for commercial use. However they may allow use of the image on a website if credit is given to them and it's not being used commercially. Also watch whether they will allow you to use a derivative. If derivatives aren't allowed that means you can't alter the image at all. You may need to apply to them to be able to use anything they are offering through their website if you intend to use it commercially. The rules for use can vary greatly between collections so always read the restrictions carefully.

Buy old books from Amazon

Project Gutenberg

Where it all started

Started in 1971, Project Gutenberg was the first to collect and digitize books for the enjoyment of all. Their mission statement is simply stated as: "To encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks." The project is run entirely by volunteers who scan and submit their books to Project Gutenberg. The project isn't governed by strict guidelines as to what books to include. They keep an open policy on accepting almost any ebook so they can keep their collection growing and anyone can suggest a book. They also encourage the storage of ebooks in all different formats so as to keep them accessible to all. All books in the collection are copyright within the United States. However check the copyright laws within your country, because under the laws in your country it may still be under copyright.

List of other countries copyright laws

Always check the copyright status

You must comply with the copyright laws within your own county and that of the country which is holding the works. Don't assume just because it is in the public domain of another country you are free to use the work. Here's Wikipedia's list of countries' copyright lengths for the guidelines in other countries.

Places to find public domain books - Free book pictures

These sites have public domain books. Always check each book before you use it because some of these site offer both books in the public domain and books that are still under copyright.

Do you love public domain books? - Or just leave a note to say you stopped by

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    • Deborah Swain profile image

      Deborah Swain 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

      am gobbling up public domain books on my kindle these days!

    • espressoman lm profile image

      espressoman lm 4 years ago

      I love Public Domain books. So much info, so little time to use it all!

    • profile image

      Echo Phoenix 4 years ago

      pure gold!

    • BlogsWriter profile image

      BlogsWriter 4 years ago

      I like to read those rare public domain books, they are real treasure.

    • mihgasper profile image

      Miha Gasper 5 years ago from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU

      I like public domain. In the world of too much copyright on one and too much copyright infringements on the other side public domain books provide really nice oasis.

    • Linda Pogue profile image

      Linda Pogue 5 years ago from Missouri

      Excellent content. Copyright is something we all need to be aware of. Blessings!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this interesting and informative lens. I knew that books in the public domain existed, but didn't know much else. Your lens does a good job of shining light on the subject.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 5 years ago from Central Florida

      I love what Project Gutenberg is doing and already have downloaded a number of free ebooks from the Civil War era. It's great that these previously rare books are made accessible again.

    • profile image

      AlleyCatLane 5 years ago

      Wow! What great information. I did not know any of this. All lensmasters should read this. Blessed.

    • profile image

      poutine 5 years ago

      Excellent advice.

    • profile image

      burntchestnut 5 years ago

      I love out-of-print books and often go to thrift shops and used book stores. Although, I prefer an actual book to hold and read, the internet offers more books than I can ever find or afford in a store. I knew about some of these sites - thanks for such a complete list.

    • Zut Moon profile image

      Zut Moon 5 years ago

      Excellent lens .. I hoping for your approval to feature it in 2 of my lenses ...

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      An excellent article about public domain works and quite easy to read. I even found an excellent new resource that I didn't even know existed - Project Gutenberg.

    • CruiseReady profile image

      CruiseReady 5 years ago from East Central Florida

      Oh, this is SO useful and informative. Thank you for emphasizing that the appearace of something on the internet does NOT place it in the public domain!

    • profile image

      DebMartin 5 years ago

      Very informative and well written. Thanks for the tips. I'll be using them soon as I have a public domain book in mind that I'd like to rewrite and update the language and the story. Love it!

    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 5 years ago from Virginia

      This is definitely news I can use. I'd like to get in on public domain books. Thanks for sharing.

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