Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to read classic titles online for free, without having to visit any shady or illegal sites?

There is! The public domain (more on what that is below) is full of older books, films, poems, and other creative works whose copyrights have expired or been waived. That means they’re just sitting there, like a (not-so) secret treasure chest waiting to be enjoyed, reproduced, or spun into new, creative art.

Check out our guide to navigating the public domain below, including titles that just became free in 2020 and tips on how you can determine what’s included in the public domain.

What Is the Public Domain?

The public domain includes all of the creative work (such as images, films, books, or music) for which there are no exclusive intellectual property rights. The rights might have been forfeited, expired, waived, or inapplicable.

In the United States, every work that was published before 1923 has been in the public domain since 1998. Works published in the year 1923 entered the public domain on January 1, 2019, and on January 1, 2020, all works published in 1924 also entered the public domain.

That means that as of this year, any creative work published in or before 1924 can be accessed online in its entirety, used, and built upon without the need for permissions or fees.

But this isn’t just good news for anyone dependent on Google Books previews. It also means that independent directors can adapt those books into films without paying millions for the rights, youth orchestras can afford to publicly perform those songs, and community theaters can screen those films.

Public Domain Books: New in 2020

Below are a few notable titles that were added to the public domain as of January 1, 2020. To find more materials, including films and music, check out the Catalog of Copyright Entries. You can also use sites like Project Gutenberg, which offers more than 57,000 free eBooks from the public domain.

What Else Is in the Public Domain?

In addition to the rules outlined above, around 80% of all the books published between 1923 and 1964 are also in the public domain. That’s because prior to 1964, the copyright term for books was 28 years. Extending that term required a lot of paperwork, and, luckily for readers, a lot of authors and publishers just never filed.

To find some of those hidden gems, you can check out the Hathi Trust, a digital library similar to Project Gutenberg that has already uploaded many of the books that have recently been freed.

Are Public Domain Books Free?

Yes! Public domain books are free (and most importantly, legal!) to download, and they can even be reproduced, used, and built upon without the need for any special licenses or permissions.

They can be downloaded for free for your reading enjoyment, quoted extensively on your blog, or used freely for educational purposes—all things that usually aren’t legally possible with books that are outside of the public domain.

How Do I Find Out If a Book Is in the Public Domain?

The easiest way to tell if a book is in the public domain is if its publication date is earlier than 1923. After that, the rules can get a bit more complicated.

Thankfully, however, the New York Public Library recently paid to parse the information in the Catalog of Copyright Entries, and the old copyrights are now searchable, so we can see when and if they were renewed.

Most of the time, you might find an answer simply by doing a search on Google for the work’s title and the term “public domain.”

However, if you need to use a work for a large project and its status is unclear, you might want to consider contacting the Copyright Office and ask them to do the research for you. This comes at a hefty price, but at least you know their answer will be correct and you can rest easy knowing that no lawsuits are in your future.

More Free Ways to Read

The public domain is full of free treasures, and this is a secret that too few readers know. If you want an easy way to find free digital copies of some great titles, check out our list of the 29 best websites to download free ebooks.

You can also find plenty of free audiobooks to listen to around the house or on your way to work, which can be downloaded completely legally and at no charge.

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!


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