The Online Books Page

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

How do I get permission from the copyright holder?

There are three basic steps:

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.

In the United States, the following rules apply:

Peter Hirtle at Cornell has a useful annotated set of tables covering the US copyright status of various types of works in more detail.

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 2023 this summary has not been fully updated for a few years. Also some countries may have transitional provisions in which some older works got shorter copyright terms. Some are noted below, some are not:

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 laws vary.

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 WATCH database. 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 own country.

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:
  1. the work is not subject to normal commercial exploitation
  2. a copy or phonorecord of the work cannot be obtained at a reasonable price
  3. the copyright holder or its agent has not filed a notice with the Copyright Office claiming either of the two conditions above.
As of 2023, this may allow certain copyrighted and out-of-print works from 1928-1947 to go online 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.

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 as of 2023, pre-1972 sound recordings will have somewhat longer copyright 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 2023. 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. In some 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, 9th edition published 2019) 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.

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 made available 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 citizens to contact their legislators and officials to oppose further erosions of the public domain. For more information on the value of the public domain, see the website for the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

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