How Can I Tell Whether a Book Can Go Online?
In order for a book to go online, either
Most free online books are from public-domain texts, but
there are also many books online with the permission
of the copyright holder.
- the copyright holder (usually the author) has to give permission, or
- the book needs to be in the public domain (i.e. copyright on the material has expired), or
- there must be a special legal exemption allowing whoever puts the
book online to do so without permission of the copyright holder. (This last case is quite rare; in the
US, it may apply to libraries and archives with respect to
some out-of-print copyrighted books published between 1926 and 1945.
In some other countries, it might apply to books known as "orphan works".)
How do I get permission from the copyright holder?
There are three basic steps:
- Find out the name and contact information for whoever
holds the copyright and can give permissions.
The copyright page on a book will usually
tell you who the copyright holder is. If a publisher holds the the copyright,
you can find out their mailing address by looking in Books in Print. If a
person holds the copyright, and their address cannot
be found through other means, most authors and estates can be reached
care of their publishers. Many well-known authors also have a copyright
contact address listed in the online
Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders (WATCH) database, or in the Authors Registry. You can also consult some guides
to locating copyright holders in various countries:
- Contact them to ask permission.
If you're writing to ask permission, tell them who you are and what
you plan to do with the book. If you make it clear that you're planning
a free, non-profit venture, and are willing to cooperate with the author,
it's quite possible the author will welcome the chance to see their work
made available to new generations of readers. Authors may be concerned
about losing control or royalties for their work, or about the integrity
of their work. You may want to address these concerns in your letter.
(For instance, you
can note that they will retain copyright over the work, and that your
copy will prominently assert their copyright and author's rights. You
can offer to have them check over the electronic copy if they want
to make sure it's being published as they intended. You
can also note that online versions of books, especially if they provide
a way to buy print copies, or other books by the author,
in some cases have increased sales and demand for an author's works.)
- See what the copyright holder says in reply.
- The author may reply quickly, or may take a while to respond
(especially if the letter has to be routed via publishers). Some authors
may not reply at all. Others will say no. While it may be unfortunate
that the book cannot be read online, the author or other copyright holder
does get to have the last word on whether and how they want the
book published online, while the copyright is still in force.
You can always try pursuing permission for someone else's book, or
work on one that is in the public domain.
How do I find out whether the book is in the public domain?
The rules vary from country to country. In the US and many other countries,
authors can put a work in the public domain by formally declaring that
they are doing so. But most books enter the public domain either because
they are not copyrightable (e.g. certain government documents),
or because their copyrights expire.
Below, I give
my best understanding of when copyright expires in various countries, but
keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, and should not be relied on
for legal advice.
United States, the following rules apply:
Peter Hirtle at Cornell has a useful annotated chart covering the US copyright status of various types of works in more detail.
- Anything copyrighted prior to 1926 is in the public domain.
(Practically speaking, this includes anything published prior to 1926,
since publication without copyright put the work straight into the public
But note this
possible exception in some western states for some 1909-1925
foreign works that were not published in the US before 1926. Also, sound
recordings from any time period generally are not yet in the public
domain, but see below for more information on exemptions
that cover them.)
- Certain works copyrighted in 1926 or later may already have
entered the public domain. In particular, works published in the
US before 1989 without proper copyright notice, and works published in the US
before 1964 whose copyrights were not renewed, may have entered the public
domain. However, works from 1926 or later
that were originally published in countries outside
the US may still be copyrighted regardless of whether they were printed
with proper notice or renewed.
To research whether a book's copyright has been renewed, or needed to be
see this article.
- Works never published prior to 2003 (and
for copyright prior to 1978) are now in the public
in the US if they are by authors who died more than 70 years before the
most recent New Year's day.
(For 2021, this means authors who died before 1951.)
Here's a summary of copyright durations in other countries, last I checked them:
(Please double-check terms for your country though, since
as of 2021 this summary has not been updated for a few years):
In some countries outside the US, there is also a "law of the shorter term",
which may expire copyrights for books written and published in other countries
at the same time as they expire in their "home" country, if this
is a shorter time period.
In the cases of multiple authors, authors that are organizations
rather than people, works not published until after the author's death,
and works published outside the country, national
You can often find information on publication dates and author's
death dates from the book itself, or from library catalogs.
Other resources for this information
include the New
General Catalog of Old Books and Authors
(in the UK), and the
We also have some more information on determining death dates.
Wikipedia has a set of
links on copyright length in various countries. Be sure to follow
the citations before relying on the information, though.
See also WIPO Lex, a database
of various legal documents, including national copyright laws,
organized by country.
What if the book is copyrighted in some countries, but public domain in others?
Consider first whether it's copyrighted in your own country
(or the country where your Web site is located, if that's different).
I will generally list books on the Online Books Page if they're
public domain in the countries they're being served from.
However, if they are not yet public domain in the US (where this
page is located) I will include a warning mentioning this.
As far as I'm aware, there are not yet hard-and-fast rules on the
distribution of legal responsibility for downloading etexts
from a country where they're public domain to a country where they're not.
But I would at the least include a warning if you know that some of
the texts you serve are copyrighted in some countries. And I would
avoid downloading texts from other countries that are copyrighted in your
What's this special legal exemption for libraries and archives?
When the United States Congress extended copyrights 20 years in 1998, they
included a provision that "libraries and archives" could, during the last
20 years of a copyright's term, and for
purposes of preservation, scholarship, or research, "reproduce,
distribute, display, or perform in facsimile or digital form a copy or
phonorecord of the work or portions of the work", if it has determined that:
As of 2021,
this may allow certain copyrighted and out-of-print works from 1926-1945 to
from the web sites of libraries and nonprofit archives.
For more information, including how to search notices of claims, see
this page from the US Copyright Office. Of course, some copyrights from those years
have already expired due to nonrenewal.
- the work is not subject to normal commercial exploitation
- a copy or phonorecord of the work cannot be obtained at a reasonable price
- the copyright holder or its agent has not filed a notice
with the Copyright Office claiming either of the two conditions above.
With the passage of the Music Modernization Act in 2018, libraries and archives
have similar exemptions for pre-1972 sound recordings that meet the three
criteria listed above. For sound recordings from before 1972,
the exemption is not
limited to the last 20 years of copyright. (Though sound recordings
will not be entering the public domain until 2022, and will have somewhat
longer terms than other types of works for the next several decades.)
What about orphan works exemptions?
There aren't any specific exemptions for orphan works in the US
as of 2020. There are some limited orphan
works exemptions in some other countries. We'll post details
here as we learn more.
What about reprints of public domain
works? Can I work from those, or do they get a new copyright?
A simple reprint of a book, without any creative additions or changes,
does not get a new copyright of its own-- at least not in the United States.
(Some other countries may have a limited "facsimile" right-- check
local laws for details.)
However, some reprints have been re-edited, or include new material,
which may be eligible for a new copyright.
If you'd like to transcribe or scan a reprint edition, first check
the copyright page to see if any new copyrights are claimed.
cases, reprints only copyright the foreword, or the notes, or new
illustrations-- in which case you can just omit those in your transcription.
Even if a new edition is copyrightable, issuing a new edition does
not in any way lengthen or restore the copyright of older editions.
Note that some people prefer to transcribe from older editions, even
if reprint editions are also in the public domain.
This may be because
the older editions have a more accurate text, or because they want to include
the unique details of the older editions (such as the pagination, or
the title pages) in their transcription.
Where can I get more information
on the public domain and copyright?
A very useful guide on the legalities of putting books online in the US
is Mary Minow's Library
Digitization Projects and Copyright. It's written by a lawyer
and librarian, and goes into more detail on many of the issues discussed here.
If you would like
more information on the public domain, a book by Stephen
Fishman, called The Public Domain: How to Find Copyright-Free Writings,
Music, Art and More (Nolo Press, 6th edition published 2012)
is a useful guide to finding and using public domain works, and
goes into much more detail than is possible on a single Web page like
this one. Here is the
publisher's information page on the current edition.
PIJIP-Copyright forum (formerly CNI-COPYRIGHT) is a mailing list with a number
of copyright experts on it.
I have also found the following
books helpful for more complicated legal questions on copyright. Both
books are updated every few years:
Some additional details on public domain status have been collected on
Wikipedia's public domain guidelines page. That page can be edited by anyone, and therefore cannot be considered authoritative, but it can be useful for an overview of some of the nooks and crannies of copyright law that one might want to investigate further.
If you need expert legal advice, consult
a lawyer who handles intellectual property matters. (Again, I am not a lawyer,
and this page should not be considered legal advice.)
Why do copyrights expire, anyway?
Because both copyright and the public domain serve authors and the public.
Copyrights give an author a temporary monopoly over distribution of her
works, so as to encourage her to write and earn a living by it. The
public domain, in turn, is a rich source of material that people can
freely read, retell, perform, and distribute, and that authors can use
to produce new creative works.
For instance, the tale of Snow White, by being in the public domain,
was told and retold in many books, became widely loved throughout
European and North American culture. It also has been
on the Net free of charge.
But it also has formed the basis of new, copyrighted works, like
Walt Disney's movie "Snow White".
Eventually, Disney's movie will in turn
enter the public domain, and the images, dialogues and songs
of the movie will
be freely usable in yet more creative works-- or be freely
used by schools and camps
to help encourage kids to sing, draw, and eventually create new works
in their own right.
The US Constitution recognizes the balance between these interests
by giving Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and
useful Arts, by
securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the
exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries".
Originally, in the US these 'limited times' were 14 years for
copyrights, optionally renewable for another 14. But the terms have been
steadily lengthened over time, until now most copyrights extend far beyond
the lifetime of the artist they're meant to encourage to create.
This upsets the
balance of copyright and the public domain in the promotion of the arts.
It also means that works often end up being lost to future generations,
since most books drop out of print and then become forgotten or
inaccessible long before their copyright runs out. If they were in the
public domain, anyone would be free to ``revive'' them easily, especially
in today's world of online texts.
Even so, entertainment industry lobbyists have frequently promoted
bills and trade agreements that would
extend copyrights even further.
On October 27, 1998, the President signed into law an extension of
copyrights on older works to a maximum of 95 years, nearly a
full century. Copyright terms for many newer books can
run even longer. During the hearing
on this bill, Sonny Bono's widow expressed the wish, which she said
was also that of MPAA head Jack Valenti, of making copyright terms
last effectively forever!
I encourage US citizens to contact their legislators and the President
to oppose further erosions of the public domain. For more information
on the value of the public domain, see these links:
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Edited by John Mark Ockerbloom (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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