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Public Domain FAQ

When is a book in the public domain?

All books published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain. This means they are copyright-free and royalty-free and have no usage restrictions in the USA! But, not only that, all books published with a copyright notice in the United States from 1923 to 1963 are also in the public domain in the USA unless they had their copyright renewed in their 28th year.

Why should I consider using public domain content?

First and foremost, the public domain is a goldmine for people looking for solutions to problems or information on how they can improve their lives. There are thousands upon thousands of high quality self-help books in the public domain that are still as relevant today as the day they were written.

We all know that it’s not easy to find a publisher that will publish a book from an unknown author. Most publishers have very strict criteria before they will accept a book for publishing and this should give you a good indication that most published books are decent quality books that had to pass several hurdles before they eventually made it to the bookshelf.

You can use them for your personal benefit but the big advantage of the public domain is that you can also use them for non-commercial and even for commercial purposes as they are copyright-free and have no usage restrictions in the USA.

What can I do with a book that is in the public domain?

Apart from the fact that you can personally benefit from the contents of the book and can print copies of it for your friends and family you can also benefit from it commercially should you choose to do so.

Here are just a couple of ideas on how you can use high quality public domain content in your business:

  • Blog posts or articles – Position yourself or your company as an authority by providing your website or blog readers with high quality and informative content that will make them want to come back for more.
  • Build your list or database of prospects – Offer visitors to your website a downloadable PDF of a public domain book that they can access in exchange for their name and email address and email them additional information and special offers on how you or your company can be of benefit to them. (Don’t spam them though with sales pitch after sales pitch! Your first consideration should always be to provide them with value!).
  • Your own book – Use the content as a foundation for your own book or combine information from more than one book into one product and add your own unique finishing touches to the product. Sell it online, give it away for free or even have hard copies printed for offline distribution.
  • Your own study course – Develop your own course, program or workbooks using public domain content that you can sell to subscribers or customers and deliver it all at once or in weekly or monthly instalments.
  • Your own audio book – Audio books are becoming increasingly popular. Many people don’t like reading but will gladly listen to audio on their way to and from work or in their free time. Nothing stops you from turning any public domain book into an audio book.

The list is endless!

 Isn’t it unethical or illegal to plagiarise the work of someone else?

Copyright infringement is illegal except under the “fair use exemption” where you may legally copy a small amount of someone else’s work and as long as you give the author credit you won’t be guilty of either copyright infringement or plagiarism.

Since public domain books are copyright-free it’s not illegal to copy some text or even a whole book for that matter and claim yourself to be the author. In fact, there are no usage restrictions on public domain books.

It’s important though to understand that plagiarism is not in itself illegal as copyright infringement is and that plagiarism is therefore not a legal issue but an ethical issue. Some people may find claiming authorship of a book they didn’t write unethical and some won’t. I would not personally do it but you have to do what feels right for you.

I know many people that will hire a ghostwriter to write a report for them and will claim authorship of the report although they paid someone else to write it. I also know many people that will buy a PLR or Private Label Rights report and claim authorship of the report although they did not write it themselves. Illegal? No. Unethical? Perhaps, if you’re not accustomed to it. But, it’s a perfectly normal and acceptable practice online.

By now you’re probably wondering… But, when you buy a PLR report or hire a ghostwriter to write a report for you then surely you have their legal permission to claim yourself as the author of the report whereas the author of a book that’s now in the public domain never gave you permission to claim yourself as the author of his or her book and never received any money from you either for the right to claim authorship of the book?

Good question! And, you’re absolutely right! That is why I always give credit to the author of the public domain book. Not because I have to but only because I feel I should from a moral and ethical perspective.

I would normally include that the book is “Published by Zero Limits Media” (my business) or “Published by Casper du Toit” (my name) but I would leave the name of the author intact. Another option is to specify “Edited by Casper du Toit” or “Compiled by Casper du Toit” when I edit a book or combine more than one book into a new publication.

I have also noticed that many people claim copyright of a book they have worked on (even if they only wrote an introduction or a summary in the book, by stating “The original version of this book is in the public domain but this edition is protected by copyright laws.” They can’t claim copyright of the original publication but they can claim copyright on any changes, additions or amendments they have made to the original book.

As previously stated, it’s not a legal issue but an ethical issue and only you can decide what’s right for you. Just bear in mind that claiming yourself as the author of a well-known public domain book will only damage your credibility, not enhance it.

Can I use a public domain book as is?

There is certainly nothing preventing you from doing so. But, I would highly recommend that you use the book as a foundation of another product and not try to sell it as is.

For example, let’s take a book on the topic or gardening…

  • You can add your own photos or replace existing photos (often black & white and not good quality) with more recent photos.
  • You can change the title of the book to something more catchy and mention something like “Originally published in 1953 under the title How to Grow Daisies, this edition has been updated to reflect new trends…”
  • You can add your own introduction to the book or even write a short summary after every chapter highlighting the most important points raised in that chapter.
  • You can add a new chapter on a topic related to the theme of the book that can add value to the book. You can even include some of your own personal experiences in this chapter if you want to.
  • You can take more than one public domain book that are complimentary to each other and combine them into one publication, thereby offering a much more comprehensive book.
  • You can use the book as a foundation for an online course where you provide your students with one or two chapters on a weekly or monthly basis and test their comprehension afterwards.

The list of possibilities are endless and one book can be used to create several income streams.

What other options are there?

You have a couple of options if you don’t like the idea of using public domain books, namely:

One, you can write your own content – This may be content for a website you’re busy developing, a book or e-book, or even a self-study course. There are three problems most people experience with this approach, namely they don’t have sufficient time to write, they do not consider themselves to be qualified enough to write about a certain topic or they do not have the writing skills needed.

Two, you can pay someone, called a ghostwriter, to write content for you. There are only two problems, namely it’s not that easy to find a good ghostwriter and when you do you’ll quickly discover that good writers are not cheap. You can expect to pay well over US$ 1,000 for a 100 page document and this fee can easily increase to well over US$ 10,000 depending on who you use. And, there is always the risk that the content may not be good enough or may not sell, even if it’s well written.

Three, most people go for the fastest and cheapest option and that is to buy PLR or Private Label Rights products. The main problem with this approach is that the vast majority of PLR products are absolute rubbish and have to be rewritten before it can be used. The last thing you want to do is to damage your credibility by attaching your name to a poor quality information product!

Why are you charging money for public domain books?

Finding original versions of public domain books can be difficult. There are many so-called public domain books on the internet but many if not most of them have been edited and are therefore no longer copyright-free.

You see, there are several steps involved:

Step 1: Find what you’re looking for – $ 10

This is not as easy as it may sound! Finding a book that you don’t even know exist is hit and miss and luck plays a big role. It can take you anything from a couple of minutes to several days or even weeks to find a strong contender and only you can put a value on your time.

Step 2: Buying the book – $ 10

Getting an intact, good quality, out of print, hard copy of a book that was last published in 1963 or even much earlier can be expensive once you add the cost of the book as well as shipping and handling charges together. (The figure of US$ 10 is a conservative figure and the actual amount may run into hundreds of dollars for some books).

Step 3: Copyright search – $ 150

Getting an attorney or legal firm to perform a copyright search on a book can cost up to US$ 400 per search. And, you don’t want to take a chance as copyright infringement is a very serious offence. The amount of $ 150 is a very conservative amount that you may be charged if you’re lucky enough to find an attorney or legal firm that’s hungry for new business and willing to offer you a special deal.

Step 4: Having the book scanned – $ 40

The last step is to have the hard copy book scanned by a professional company. Most companies will charge between $ 40 and $ 80 to have a book scanned into an editable word format document.

Total estimate and conservative cost to do it yourself: $ 210 (and countless hours!).

But, $ 210 is still much less than a ghostwriter will charge you and at least you’ll know in advance what to expect!

The good news is that you don’t need to spend $ 210 and countless hours on every book! You see, we have done all the heavy lifting for you… We have sourced some of the best public domain books for you. And, you can be reading through an instantly downloadable and editable word format book within a couple of minutes for only $ 12 per title!