Books in the Public Domain

Public domain books are those for which no copyright exists. This may be because the books were never covered by copyright, or the copyright has expired. Public domain information can be useful in creating your next book.

Keep in mind that you can use the content found in public domain books “as is” or you may use it to create derivative works. That means that:

  • Publishers can republish works found in the public domain.
  • Writers can adapt public domain books and create new works, such as adapting a public domain novel into a screenplay.
  • Webmasters can use public domain music, photos, images, and writing on their Web sites.

Books in the public domain (under U.S. Copyright law) include those copyrighted before 1923, and books published and copyrighted between 1923 and 1963 for which the copyright was not properly renewed. Works may also be in the public domain for other reasons, including lack of a proper copyright notice (if published before 1989). Additionally, most writings published by the Federal government are not covered by copyright and are in the public domain.

You might think that there is nothing of value in the public domain; however, public domain books include not only classic novels and poetry, but many self-help and how-to books that contain valuable information. Even books published before 1923 may contain information that is valid and useful today.

When you add your own creative content to a book in the public domain, you create a work that is now covered by your copyright. For example, if you add a foreword or introduction to a public domain book, you own the copyright on the new material although others may still freely use the original public domain content. You may also add illustrations or other embellishments to the public domain content, and those would be copyrightable by you if they are your original work.

If you have made significant changes to public domain content, such as rewriting the text to include more up-to-date language and examples, you hold the copyright to the new version and others can not republish your original content without your permission. Of course, if they have a copy of the original public domain work, they may publish that. Making your own revised version that is covered by your copyright does not change the fact that the original material is in the public domain.

To learn more about finding and using public domain books and other public domain information, see Public Domain Information.

As the IdeaLady, Cathy Stucker helps authors, entrepreneurs and professionals attract customers and make themselves famous with creative techniques that make marketing easy, inexpensive and even fun! Learn more when you subscribe to her free email newsletter at