What Are Public Domain Books?


You might have heard about public domain books but, what actually are they? In order to tackle that, let’s first talk about what the public domain is about.

Public domain covers material or content that belongs to the general public. That implies that it is no longer protected by any restrictions, copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The community at large owns these works, and not by any individual, artist, or author. No one can ever own them, freeing anyone to anything creative with it, without getting any permission. Now, how does it apply to books?

What is a Public Domain Book?

A public domain book is any book that has no copyright, or has its copyright forfeited, or has expired. It also covers books whose author didn’t take the required steps to protect his work under the governing copyright laws. Yet, it’s good to note that some authors purposely place their books in the public domain. Works that are published by any government agency or department also automatically becomes available in the public domain.

As such, a person can throw away his fears of copyright infringement as any book in the public domain can be freely shared, republished, copied, or altered.

However, copyright restrictions differ among types of material and content in different parts of the world. Copyright protection terms in most countries expire on January 1st, seventy (70) years after the death of the last living author. That is why many people are excited about the turn of the year as new titles are introduced into the public domain.

But, just because a book doesn’t always mean it is in the public domain. For instance, Mexico has a longer copyright period, having the longest at 100 years after the author’s or last living author’s death.

When Does a Book Become Public Domain?

Things are a bit tricky in the United States as its law governing when a book becomes part of the public domain and its copyright protection varies depending on when the book was written. Some written content also becomes automatically becomes available in the public domain.

Works Before 1923: All works before 1923 have no copyright, which means they are automatically a part of the public domain.

Works From 1923 to 1963: If the book is registered or published between January 1, 1923, to January 1, 1964, its copyright protection would last for 28 years. If the author has renewed its copyright on the 28th year, it adds 47 years to its legal protection. If not renewed, the work will be added to the public domain.

Works From 1964-1977: A book or work registered or published from 1964 to 1977 and has obtained a notice of copyright has its protection automatically extended for a second period.

Works from 1978 to Present: Based on the laws of the summer of 2009, all books or works registered or published after January 1, 1978, and are protected by copyright laws is protected for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after his or her death. If in case a book is published under a corporate author, such as names of society or club, an organization, or a company name has a copyright term of 95 years following its publication, or 120 years following from its creation, whichever is shorter.

Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998

In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act gave these books or works registered from 1923 through 1977 an additional 20 years.

If a book was registered or published in 1923 and was renewed for the second period, its copyright should have expired on 1998. With the law, it was automatically extended until through 2018, which is why the public domain has been starved of new additional works until 2019.

Final Words

Books and other works become a part of the public domain at some point in time. While it can be used, reproduce, or modified for creative purposes, it is best to source the original author as a courtesy to the authors and to provide a reference to your audience or readers. And, if you’re having second thought whether the content is already a part of the public domain, it doesn’t hurt to seek permission from the author before utilizing or copying their work.