Books in the Public Domain: Free with Project Gutenberg

The photograph shows the spines of a row of antique books, including classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Man in the Iron Mask.
Old Books” by Moi of Ra is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Becky W.

I suspect many of you have heard the term “public domain” thrown out here and there – as have I – but what does it really mean? When I ask myself this question, my thinking runs along the lines of “free, up for grabs, no questions asked, right?” Well, yes… but there is a catch. 

When a work is placed in the public domain, it is broadly defined as being free of protection from intellectual property rights including copyright, trademark, and patents. But how does work end up in the public domain? There are three main ways. First, the work was never protected by copyright law to begin with. Second, the owner places the work in the public domain before the copyright has expired. Third, the copyright has expired, either due to the terms of the copyright or the owner failing to follow copyright renewal rules. Once a work is placed in the public domain it is, in a general sense, free to be used without restriction. As with any legal perspective, there are exceptions. I am not a copyright expert, and, let’s be honest, have already spent all of the mental bandwidth I can muster for this topic, so I can’t give you all the legality behind those exceptions. If, however, copyright law is your jam, there is a great resource from Cornell University that takes a detailed look at copyright and the public domain. 

So why, as readers and lovers of knowledge, do we care about this? Well, the public domain covers a lot of creative works, but one material abundant in the public domain is books. I know what you’re thinking: “free books, great, yes, sign me up,” and you’re absolutely right. The public domain offers us free access to thousands of books and writings. But remember, I said there was a catch. When a book is placed in the public domain, it allows for people to do any number of things with that book, including selling it. Books in the public domain are not always free; in fact, if you look up a public domain title online, it will most definitely have a listed price. Luckily for us, this is not always the case. There are some great people out their dedicating their time to digitizing these books and building them a home on the internet so everyone can have access to them. 

Now, and I know I made you wait for this, how do you access these books? Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg is a volunteer-run website and organization that digitizes and distributes works in the public domain at no cost. Books found on Project Gutenberg can be downloaded in multiple file formats, including PDF and EPub, so you can read them on any device or eReader. If you don’t have a tablet or eReader, you also have the option to read on their website. 

And that’s it! Time to go explore the public domain. There really are too many books to name: everything from classic novels to unpublished fiction. So, if you are overwhelmed and need a place to start, here are some of my recommendations. 

  1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 
  1. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving 
  1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum 
  1. The Odyssey by Homer 
  1. Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

Information on the public domain and copyright in this post was pulled from Stanford University Libraries’ Copyright and Fair Use Center.

Becky is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS East Columbia Branch who enjoys art and everything science.