What does “Public Domain” Mean?

“Public Domain” is a wonderful concept that benefits both the creators and consumers of all media: books, music, film, etc. Without “public domain”, the creation of media would be prohibitively expensive for many, and at the same time, many works would be lost because there would eventually be no one to whom to pay royalties! If you ever wondered what this concept actually means or how you know for sure you are using media legally, read on.

Why Do I See the Same Book for Wildly Different Prices?

Paper Books

When something is in the public domain, it means that the copyright on the work has expired. It then becomes legal to reproduce or even change the work without asking for anyone’s permission.

When you see books sold very cheaply, for example in an edition put out by a bookstore chain or perhaps “Dover Thrift” editions, it’s because the text is in the public domain. The publisher can put out a basic edition at that price by cutting publishing costs to the bone and because no royalties have to be paid.

When you see a more expensive version of the same basic text, for example, in an Oxford Classic or Signet Classic, you are paying extra for the footnotes and any front or back matter (Introductions, Appendices, etc.). The scholar who wrote that material does need to be paid, and that’s why those editions cost more.

So whether you choose a “thrift” edition or a more expensive one is really up to you. If it’s a really old or difficult text, you may want the footnotes to help you. If you are reading the book for school, your professor may want you to have a certain edition for the “extras”. As far as the basic text, you should be ok. The only caveat is if the book was translated into English, or whatever language you’re reading in. If you get a public domain translation, you will probably have an old one that may be much different from the text your classmates read, or it may be hard to understand. Also, if the book was originally written in another language, the translations do not go into public domain when the original text does.

Case Study: How much should I pay for a copy of Pride & Prejudice?

As an example of the widely varying prices of Public Domain books, I looked up Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

Penguin Edition: Paperback, $8.99/Kindle 14.74 (!!) I would expect footnotes, and some front and back matter.

Norton Critical Edition: Paperback $18.00/Kindle $11.99 (!!?) Well worth it if you want to read a considerable amount of well curated criticism and Austen’s letters, which this edition includes. Of course, with this pricing, the Kindle edition makes sense.

Dover Thrift Edition: Paperback $4.99/Kindle $14.74 (I have no clue except I don’t think you get the Dover edition for this price). Usually just the text with no frills.

Random Kindle Editions on Amazon: I saw prices from about $.50 to about $3.00, and some of those included several of her works. Quality can be sketchy; for example, you might not be able to go directly to the chapter you want.

Project Gutenberg: FREE , and here’s the cover, which I downloaded just because it’s so pretty:



And there’s also a dramatic adaptation (click on the image for FREE download).



Digital media: the biggest thing since we got the printing press. Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster : With Edward are his wife, Elizabeth Woodville , and their children, Elizabeth , Edward , and Richard . Maclise, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (1851).

Digital media: the biggest thing since we got the printing press. Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster: With Edward are his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, and their children, Elizabeth, Edward, and Richard. Maclise, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (1851).

Digital Books

The rise of digital media opened up a whole new world for folks who like to get a bit nerdy about what they read, or are cheapskates, because the ability to download texts eliminated the need for even the minimal publishing costs of a “thrift” style publication.

Some enterprising people create e-books that are sold or given away on Amazon, but you can also find very nice copies of these books on Project Gutenberg, which is a nonprofit organization that uses volunteers to digitize these books.

Project Gutenberg has been around almost as long as the Internet itself. It used to be kind of clunky and hard to use…I enjoyed having the chance to look at the pages of old books as objects, but I wasn’t so into reading on a computer screen. Now, however, Project Gutenberg is amazing! You can choose the format you want for your download, including Kindle, and there is a fairly simple interface to get it onto your device wirelessly.

In my personal experience, Project Gutenberg editions are more reliable than what I have download on Amazon. This may seem counter intuitive: that the text you pay a couple of dollars for on Amazon is not as good as the one you get for free on PG. If you think about it, however, it makes sense: the work of the PG volunteers is managed and checked. If you order a cheap digital book on Amazon, you really don’t know what you’re getting or from whom.

Whether you use Amazon, Project Gutenberg, Google Books, or some other source, just be mindful of what you’re getting and from where. If I download a public domain book from Amazon, I always check it right away. If anything is wrong with it, you can contact Amazon and they will refund whatever you paid, if anything.


Borrowing and Sharing Public Domain Materials: What does public domain mean to me?

As a reader, I get excited about all the random things I can have access to through the miracle of public domain, but public domain means even more if you are a creator. When material is in the public domain, it means that you are free to use it in any way you choose. That means you can “borrow” the characters, or create a mash-up (in any medium), or sample.

Have you ever wondered why “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” never appears in any other Christmas movie? It’s because the other reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, etc.) are in the public domain, but Rudolph is not. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in 1822; without public domain we would not have all the wonderful movies about Santa that we all enjoy so much (or not).

Since Santa and the reindeer are in the public domain, anyone can do anything with the characters that they like.

I can’t even deal with Jane Eyre except to say just the adaptations have their own Wikipedia article.

And to mention Wide Sargasso Sea, which is a literary work in its own right and tells the story of Rochester’s wife, Bertha.

Some of these adaptations we can do without, but if we didn’t have public domain, we wouldn’t have Wide Sargasso Sea. And Bertha deserves a voice!

That’s also why there are so many different retellings of Dracula, for example, and not so many of Twilight. I mean, I know there are, but they can’t be commercially published.

Conversely, if Dracula weren’t in the public domain, we might not have Twilight. Having to pay royalties on the vampire concept might have made Twilight unfeasible. See how this works?

The day I wrote this article, this edition of Dracula was $6.99 from Dover Thrift (these books are getting expensive…they used to be a couple of dollars), and the digital version is $.49. Twilight is $9.50 in paperback and $10.99(!) digitally.

When you start digging around, you might be surprised at how often movies are made from books in the public domain. Filmmakers are no fools, or at least in that way. For them, literally the best author is a dead author.

Note: I feature a lot of these books on The Lois Level, so keep your eyes peeled!

A cousin of “Public Domain” is Creative Commons licensing. Under Creative Commons agreements, the creator of the text gives others permission to use the text under certain conditions, which are defined by the creator.

In case you are wondering, attributing a work does not give you permission to publish it and make money from it; that’s only ok if your use is permissible either under Creative Commons or public domain. There are rules about citations in academic work, and anything extensively quoted must also have the permission of the publisher, which you will find at the beginning or end of any book that has done so. I’m just pointing this out in case you think otherwise because you were in high school before the Internet was invented. Things were less complicated before people got the ability to self publish.

Public Domain in the United States (as compared to elsewhere)

Each country has its own public domain laws, so a books can be in the public domain in one country and not in another.

In most countries, texts (books, film, or other media) goes into the public domain a certain number of years after the death of the author. Since 2018 though, the United States has been different. In the United States, texts go into the public domain 95 years after they are published. So that means that everything published in 1924 went into the public domain on January 1, 2020. There are a bunch of other laws that have to do with things published at different times, but right now, this one is the most important one, especially when it comes to books.

It also means that everything an author wrote will go into the public domain at once in most other countries, but in the US, the books slip into the public domain one or two at a time: the date of public domain is the date of publication of the individual work and has nothing to do with the death of the author.

You will find texts online that are in the public domain in other countries; just keep in mind that technically it is illegal to download or reproduce that text in the United States.

There are a lot more rules for copyrights, and some of them mean that you may find texts published after the 95 year rule that are in the public domain. Here are the rules that Project Gutenberg uses, which is pretty reliable and also comprehensible since they use volunteers: Project Gutenberg Copyright How-to

Every year, there is a load of blog posts “announcing” the books that are going into the public domain that year, but the posts mostly list the same short list. If you really want to geek out, here is the entire list of books that will go into public domain each year. Honestly, this list is too much for me, but I found Wikipedia’s list of notable publications by year incredibly useful and kind of amazing.

Public Domain isn’t just for print texts; music and film also goes into the public domain. You can links on Wikipedia’s Public Domain in the United States so you know what you’re watching legally on Youtube.

Of course, this is the Internet, so if you look hard enough, you will probably eventually find the text you were looking for online even if the book is not in the public domain, but I don’t want to know about that. Writing is hard work, and all of the people who work in the writing and publishing industry deserve to make what they do. As far as I know, if I share a link to a free book, it’s available for free, legally. If not, I stick to what I can find at the library, which is also legal…and the most prominent example of crowdfunding in the U.S., if you think about it, because the library is paid for through our taxes.

2 thoughts on “What does “Public Domain” Mean?”

  1. Pingback: Loved “The Known World”? Try these. - The Lois Level

  2. Pingback: Why "A Girl of the Limberlost" is Better Than "Where the Crawdads Sing"

Comments are closed.