Copyright Law and Free Books

Copyright law is serious business. When I was in publishing, it was not unusual for someone somewhere to take an article out of one of our magazines or a segment out of a book we had published and reprint it or post it on the Internet without attribution.

Most people are honest and respect copyrights. So many aren’t aware of the flip side to this issue — copyrights do expire and works pass into the public domain all the time. If a copyright hasn’t been renewed, you can acquire the work without fear of breaking the law. An estimated 80 percent of all the books published from 1923 to 1964 are in the public domain.

So how do you know which is which? There are several Internet sites that list books in the public domain. Here are three to get you started —

Project Gutenberg has over 59,000 free eBooks that can either be downloaded or read online. Their focus is on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired (

HathiTrust is a partnership of academic & research institutions, offering titles digitized from libraries around the world (

Standard Ebooks is a nonprofit project that “produces new editions of public domain ebooks that are lovingly formatted, open source, and free” (

So before you spend a lot of money buying books, check around and see if the copyright has expired. The ones you want may be available on-line for the asking.

Taken from “Millions of Books Are Secretly in the Public Domain. You Can Download Them Free” by Matthew Gault (

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