When Does a Book Become Public Domain?

Writers frequently ask about whether they need permission to quote from another book. The answer is usually yes. But if the book is in the public domain that permission is unnecessary (meaning it is free to use). I don’t want to tackle the issue of “Fair Use” today, but instead provide a few links that you can use to find out if a book is in the public domain, or not.

The rules are a little convoluted (see below). The easiest rule to remember is the year 1923 as the cut off. Anything published prior to that year is public domain. Anything after is not.

This cut off of 1923 received a fascinating challenge a couple years ago involving the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Ten of the Sherlock Holmes stories were published after the cut off date (1923-1927). Those prior to 1923 are public domain. Those after are still under copyright and controlled by the estate. In 2015 Miramax released the film “Mr. Holmes” which depicted the aging retired detective solving a case. The estate claimed that the film’s story was based on stories written after 1923 that describe the later years of Holmes career. The case was settled out of court before the film was distributed in the U.S.

Cornell University has provided a very helpful chart to determine if an existing work is still covered by copyright (click here for the chart). In a nutshell, any book published during the years 1923-1963 is still under copyright, as are all books published after 1964 (although until 1989 they still had to have proper notice and registration). Books published before 1923, or before Jan. 1, 1964 and not renewed (in the 28th year after publication), are out of copyright and therefore in the public domain.

Use the form on the U.S. copyright web site. This form searches the U. S. copyright records database. The form only searches books, not music, etc. It is not a definitive/legal search. It is a first step. If you can’t find the work it doesn’t mean you are free to use it. Consider consulting the resources found on the CopyLaw web site found at this link. Be very careful, you don’t want to be sued or be accused of plagiarism. Below is a link to a twelve page booklet published by the copyright office, or consider hiring an intellectual property attorney to do the search:
How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work

In other words don’t just pick up a book off the shelf and decide you can reuse or republish it for free, just because you think it is an old book.

In my career I’ve seen multiple examples of an author wanting to write a story based on a famous character in a well-known story. Like telling the “rest of the story” of a character in Star Trek, or The Chronicles of Narnia, or Lord of the Rings. In each case it wasn’t fan-fiction, where the legal rules are a little murky. These were attempts to convince our agency to commercially represent a book that ultimately infringed on the intellectual property of another writer whose works are protected by copyright. The authors were creative to be sure. They were genuine in their love for the original, no question. But both innocent and unaware of the legal ramifications. However, without permission from the estate such a work cannot be published.

[A much shorter version of this post originally ran in June 2009.]

20 Responses to When Does a Book Become Public Domain?

  1. Sharon Gillenwater June 29, 2009 at 10:21 am #

    Good links to have. Thanks, Steve!

  2. jeannie June 29, 2009 at 11:22 am #

    What about quotes from songs?

    • Steve June 30, 2009 at 9:11 am #

      ALWAYS get permission when quoting a song lyric, unless you are certain the song lyric is in the public domain (like a hymn from the 1800s).

      Here is a link to a lawsuit filed in 2009. In it Microsoft, Yahoo, and Rhapsody were sued for their music stores. The claim was that they licensed the “music performance” rights but not the “composition” rights. In other words they are streaming the music and the lyrics but only licensed the music. Read the article if you want all the details:
      http://techdirt.com/articles/20090630/0046095409.shtml
      Below is a link to the 104 page lawsuit:
      https://www.scribd.com/document/16950202/mcsvyahoocomplaint

  3. Ellie Kay June 30, 2009 at 6:17 am #

    Hey Steve,

    What about quoting our own work but from a different publisher?

    • Steve June 30, 2009 at 9:15 am #

      Good question. Even though you are the author of the works, you signed a “grant of rights” to the publisher when you signed the contract. As part of those “grant of rights” the publisher controls the use, in printed form, of the content of your book.

      So if you quote yourself in a book with another publisher, you absolutely must get permission from the first publisher. And you might even have to pay a permission fee! Yes it would feel weird to pay to cite your own work, but be prepared for that possibility. (I know of a case where a client had to pay to quote himself!)

      Our agency knows of two publishers that have a much more stringent policy than this. One demands that permission be obtained from any source or quote of over 25 words…not 250. Another requires the author, in a non-fiction book, to obtain releases from every person quoted in the book. This includes spouse, parents, family members, etc. Make sure you know what your publisher requires before you start writing your book.

      • Damon J. Gray October 2, 2017 at 5:44 am #

        Steve,

        This line puzzled me:
        >> Make sure you know what your publisher requires before you start writing your book.

        This strikes me as very “chicken & the egg” in its logic. I cannot know what my publisher requires because I do not yet have a publisher, and I cannot secure a publisher without a mind-blowingly excellent proposal based on a manuscript (or at least part of a manuscript) and that means I have started writing my book which I am not supposed to do without knowing what my publisher requires.

        The world of publishing is indeed a complex monstrosity.

        • Steve Laube October 2, 2017 at 9:50 am #

          Damon,

          Good point. I was thinking about a contracted author writing a non-fiction book. Often those are sold based on a proposal.

          However, you can still write the mind-blowing book and THEN go get all the permissions based on the requirements of the publisher.

          If you are unable to secure the permissions or the permissions end up costing thousands of dollars then you can adjust the manuscript accordingly.

          When a client was working on “The Kingdom of the Occult” (Walter Marting with Jill Rische and Kurt Van Gorden) they ran into some “occult” organizations who refused to grant permission to quote their copyrighted material. The authors and the publisher worked hard to be accurate in their final work on those particular organizations.

          That is what I meant.

          • Damon J. Gray October 3, 2017 at 5:48 am #

            That makes sense, Steve. Thanks for clarifying!

  4. Catherine Hudson October 31, 2012 at 4:10 am #

    Thanks! That’s really helpful. What about quoting a book title only – as in a character uses that title to name something (fiction here of course). Or quoting movie lines – even if the move title is then mentioned?

    • Steve Laube October 31, 2012 at 8:41 am #

      Mentioning a book title is not a problem. But quoting lines from a movie might be a problem…depending on how litigious the owners of script will be. See the link here where the William Faulkner estate is suing people for small quotations.
      http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20121029/03170620867/faulkner-estate-keeps-suing-sues-washington-post-over-ad-that-quoted-one-sentence.shtml

      • Catherine Hudson October 31, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

        Thanks so much Steve – that really helps. I think that’s a real shame though. People often quote things and it makes for great banter between characters – in fact, I believe it ‘keeps alive’ the works and words of others that may otherwise be forgotten. Its a money making venture it you ask me to sue anyone and everyone regarding quotes.

  5. Brennan S. McPherson October 2, 2017 at 3:54 am #

    Copyright is strange. Without it, industries would fall apart. But it’s not a perfect system, and comes with strange baggage through our fallen nature. Makes me long for the day when we’re all made perfect in the shadow of our Maker–and have no issues imitating God’s creativity without fear of hunger, accolades, or acceptance. I wish life were simpler. In the meantime. . . let’s not get sued. 🙂

  6. Brenda Jackson October 2, 2017 at 5:45 am #

    Thanks for these very helpful links.

  7. Carol Ashby October 2, 2017 at 7:47 am #

    Steve, is 1923 a magic year for works originally published and copyrighted outside the US?

    Thanks for the links to help us figure out copyright. It applies to our web postings of words and images, too.

    I sometimes have a hard time finding suitable images for the articles at my Roman site. According to a person at the British Museum, simply having clickable links to my books at Amazon pulls it into the commercial use category for them, meaning I can’t use their images on what is more than 90% an educational site.

    • Steve Laube October 2, 2017 at 9:45 am #

      Carol,

      Click the link for the chart from Cornell University. Scroll down and find the info on “outside the US” publications.
      https://copyright.cornell.edu/publicdomain

      I’m only quoting US law. I’m not a copyright attorney. So if there is a question regarding material originating in another country, you will need to investigate that country’s copyright laws.

      For example, in England the copyright for The King James Version is still held by the Crown. Therefore if you live in the US or anywhere outside of the UK, you may freely quote the KJV. If you live within the United Kingdom and are wanting to quote the KJV, you may do so if you meet certain criteria.
      http://www.cambridge.org/bibles/about/rights-and-permissions/#rQXwJJ4gVE2zRswT.97

      As for your use of “free” images on your web site. That isn’t necessarily copyright law. That is the terms and conditions required by the copyright holder.
      Many images can be found using Creative Commons images that have no limitations.
      https://search.creativecommons.org/

  8. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D October 2, 2017 at 9:30 am #

    Thanks for helping us avoid legal pitfalls, Steve!

  9. Ron Mosby October 2, 2017 at 11:13 am #

    This was a very helpful post. Thank you for this information.

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