Effect Measure

Is it in the public domain?

Traveling and busy as hell, but wanted to share this. The ever expanding copyright laws is one of my pet peeves, but almost as irritating as the increasing length of copyright is the difficulty in knowing if something is still under copyright. The copyright date and name of the copyright holder in the frontmatter of a book is not a sufficient indication since it only tells you who used to have the copyright, not who does or does not have it now as a result of a renewal. For books published in the US between 11923 there is now a new tool to use:

For U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963, the rights holder needed to submit a form to the U.S. Copyright Office renewing the copyright 28 years after publication. In most cases, books that were never renewed are now in the public domain.


How do you find out whether a book was renewed? You have to check the U.S. Copyright Office records. Records from 1978 onward are online (see http://www.copyright.gov/records) but not downloadable in bulk. The Copyright Office hasn’t digitized their earlier records, but Carnegie Mellon scanned them as part of their Universal Library Project, and the tireless folks at Project Gutenberg and the Distributed Proofreaders painstakingly corrected the OCR. (Inside Google Booksearch)

The folks at Google have combined these efforts into one downloadable file. This means at some point it should be easy to see if that book you found in the used books store or have on your shelves is in the public domain. If it is, you can quote from it freely. It looks like the XML file still needs some skill to manipulate but probably someone will take the last steps soon to make this user friendly or web based.

Thanks to the Project Gutenberg, Distributed Proofreaders and Google. Distributed Proofreaders notes in the comments that they didn’t type in every word, they just” “proofread every word of the OCR twice [and reformated] it as a plain text document with consistent formatting for each entry so our bit is probably pretty close to what is in the original and could be converted to XML.” That’s still an amazing task.

Hat tip to the folks at Boingboing who alerted us to this.


  1. #1 Dave Munger
    June 26, 2008

    “you can quote from it freely”

    You can do that already, with any work, because of fair use laws.

    If it’s in the public domain, you can do much more: you can republish the whole thing, edit it to change the main character’s name to your own, make a movie of it, or whatever else your imagination can come up with. Hopefully we’ll start seeing some of these books on Project Gutenberg soon!

  2. #2 anon
    June 26, 2008

    I’m waiting for the search engine which has a feature to
    show only public domain sources.

    I’m waiting for the sub-internet which only has public domain sources.

    which of the two internets (all, vs. public domain only)
    do you predict will be more successful in future ?

  3. #3 revere
    June 26, 2008

    Dave: Not exactly There are limits to Fair Use and there are no limits to public domain. Yes, you can quote under Fair Use but not quote freely (nconstrained).

    anon: As this project shows, it is often very difficult to know when something is in the public domain or not. I’d like to see a source like that, too.

  4. #4 g336
    July 4, 2008

    Anon, you get the idea of the year award for that one, and I hope you contact EFF with it and push it as far as it will go.

    Let’s see a top-level domain or some other means, by which we can determine (and search accordingly, and read and write accordingly) when something is public domain. Let’s also extend that to Creative Commons works.

    And I think you will be right about this: the public and CC stuff will eventually out-compete the restrictively copyrighted stuff. Might even earn better livings for those who create and publish it. I can’t wait. Sitting at the edge of my seat until it happens.

New comments have been disabled.