Creative works in what’s known as the “public domain” exist outside the realm of intellectual property protection and can be used freely. Think the “Star Spangled Banner” or photos of the Mona Lisa. The public owns these materials either because the copyright expired, the owner didn’t follow statutory renewal and copyright notice rules, the type of work isn’t protectable, or the copyright owner voluntarily dedicated it to the public domain.
Because of changing U.S. copyright laws, the publication date of a work often determines whether it is in the public domain. Before 1964, a copyright owner had to mail in a form to renew copyright protection after the initial 28-year term. As Matthew Gault recently explained, although the Library of Congress has a digitized Catalog of Copyright Entries detailing the copyright registrations and renewals of all U.S. books, computers could not read the copyright renewal information to determine which works were in the public domain.
That is, until the New York Public Library (NYPL) funded a project that converted all of this information to xml, making it fully searchable online. Because of this functionality, we now know that a huge number of copyright owners never mailed in that renewal form. In fact, around 80 percent of all the books published in the United States from 1923 to 1964 are in the public domain! In addition to the staggering number of public domain books uncovered by the NYPL project, new works enter the public domain on Public Domain Day each January 1. In 2020, U.S. works created in 1924 will enter the public domain, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
I checked with Brooks Kushman attorney Anna K. Robinson about all of this public domain hoopla, and she cautioned that “readers should be aware that just because the main text of a book has entered the public domain, all aspects of the book may not have. For example, new cover artwork, a newly penned foreword, or annotations added by another author and included in new publications of the book are likely to be protected by copyright.”
If you’re a bookworm like me, you might want to learn how to get your hands on the fruits of this book boon. Gault points to several websites, including the Hathi Trust and Project Gutenberg digital libraries. Goodreads also has a fun list of Popular Public Domain Books. And if you want to download some recently liberated titles, check out Standard Ebooks.
Happy free reading!