A New Old Book?
February 17, 2010 4:56 PM   Subscribe

CopyrightFilter: Lets say I wanted to take a book in the public domain, illustrate it, set it, and design it as a kind of portfolio project that shows I can do all these things - could I then sell the book legally via print on demand or running my own press?
posted by The Whelk to Law & Government (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Provided the original is completely in the public domain, yes, you can do whatever you want with it without any consideration for the original author. Do make sure, however, that it is in the public domain, of course. Lots of people make a living on it, and it's one of my hobby industries.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:59 PM on February 17, 2010

Response by poster: What defines "completely"?
posted by The Whelk at 5:00 PM on February 17, 2010

Sure, it's in the public domain. Any risk you run would probably be of the "well, not ALL of it" or "actually the person who did the research on copyright missed something" variety.

I've thought about doing this myself with some of my favorite old stories. It's a fun concept.
posted by circular at 5:00 PM on February 17, 2010

Yes of course you can. That's what public domain means.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:00 PM on February 17, 2010

[Not legal advice, I am not your lawyer, etc..] Yes. Although your copyright (i.e. your right to prevent others from copying and/or selling your finished portfolio product) would extend only to those original elements that you added to the public domain work as you found it.
posted by applemeat at 5:02 PM on February 17, 2010

This is not at all unlike someone taking a public domain song and adding new (copyrighted) verses/a chorus/a bridge to it, and releasing an entire album of such songs.
posted by davejay at 5:04 PM on February 17, 2010

Response by poster: Well the idea is creating a personal project that proves I can do large-scale whole-book illustration while also making it easy for someone to buy it if they wanted to (hence why I mentioned print on demand services despite having issues with quality and price). A lot of the books I'd be interested in are from the UK, which has different laws but I'm so lost to what they are - However nothing I'm interested in was published after say 1900.
posted by The Whelk at 5:05 PM on February 17, 2010

Well "completely", as in existing illustrations might have their own copyright separate from the book itself, the USA copyright rules aren't 100% identical with overseas publishers so something might be public domain one place and not another, a chunk of song lyrics might still be copyrighted even if the rest of the book has fallen into public domain, a translation has its own copyright, etc, etc; pre-1923, you're pretty much in the clear -- there's a lot of stuff up until the 50s and 60s that have fallen into the public domain, but they're in murkier territory.

On preview: 19th century books are likely all public domain in the UK; however, the UK protects works for life of the author + 70 years, so a particularly long-lived author might still be protected by copyright in the UK. IANAL, and doing due diligence to document a book being public domain is a big part of protecting yourself.
posted by AzraelBrown at 5:24 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a very good idea as a portfolio piece. I screen and hire creatives, and I love it when someone has something ambitious and tactile like this to show off.

If you can sell it as a 'real' book after the fact, bonus!
posted by rokusan at 5:36 PM on February 17, 2010

You totally can. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, takes this idea even further by modifying the original text (a UK work, no less).
posted by eggplantplacebo at 5:42 PM on February 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

IANAL. That said, there are two parts to "selling it legally": yes, you can sell it legally if everything you copy is in the public domain. But the other important part is that you will be the only one who can sell it legally because your version will not be in the public domain! If anyone else wants to copy it they will have to get your permission.

This assumes that they're not just copying the text (say, by typing it in) or some other element that you have copied. But you can even get protection for the elements you copy by making changes to them. Edit the text a little - take out typographical errors or add a few words - and you now have a "new" text that is under your copyright. The more changes you make, the more secure your protection will be.

This is not just theoretical: there are any number of reprinted versions of works that are now in the public domain, and most of these have recent copyright notices. They're not lying - they will have made some amendments to the text, and they are claiming copyright in their editing. If someone wanted to make their own reprint version they would have to use the original, unedited version.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:46 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If someone wanted to make their own reprint version they would have to use the original, unedited version.

Could I assume something on project Gutenberg or the like would be a free-to-use text I could edit and re-design etc and not someone else's (who may have a claim to it) version?
posted by The Whelk at 5:50 PM on February 17, 2010

Sites that provide digital copies, like Gutenberg and Google, give digital copies of public domain books -- however, the end of Gutenberg files and the beginning of the Google PDFs have usage licenses attached.

Getting a digital copy from them uses their service, and you're bound by their requirements and restrictions if you want to use their document service. This is a contractual issue, not copyright, and is a whole different ball of wax.

Google's, for example, says you can use their copy only for noncommercial purposes, cannot do "automatic querying", must attribute Google, and "keep it legal". Those are restrictions of having access to their digital copy, and are unrelated to how public domain the document is. Gutenberg says you have to distribute it completely intact, follow their refund policy, and pay 20% trademark license fee payable to "Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation", although they do say if you remove all references to Project Gutenberg you're in the clear. Again, this is a EULA, not a copyright.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:11 PM on February 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

What AzraelBrown said: you're not necessarily in the clear (Project Gutenberg might be wrong), plus by using their service you're apparently agreeing to pay them a license fee. But I still think this is the way to go: you're almost certainly in the clear (it's unlikely they were working from a modern reprint with amendments) and if this is for a portfolio you're probably not going to be getting it published professionally.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:58 PM on February 17, 2010

Yes, this can be done: see Tom Phillips, A Humument, one of the classics of this genre.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:44 PM on February 17, 2010

Although A Humument is not so much a resetting with illustration as it is a large-scale alteration....
posted by brianogilvie at 7:45 PM on February 17, 2010

The Georgia State Law Library has a U.S. research guide about copyright law authored by Audrey Dulmage. It has a discussion about renewal that you may be interested in. It also contains links to primary law sources (cases, statutes, etc.) that comprehensively paint the patchwork picture of copyright law in the U.S.
posted by GPF at 8:20 PM on February 17, 2010

BTW - the Google book settlement has a hearing tomorrow that might affect issues regarding copyright law and books, especially vis Google.
posted by GPF at 8:23 PM on February 17, 2010

One last thought, since it seems you're talking about republishing here in the US something that was originally published in the UK -- Scroll down to the "Works First Published Outside the U.S. by Foreign Nationals or U.S. Citizens Living Abroad" part for guidelines on UK copyrights in the US; if it was simultaneously published in the US and overseas, use the US copyright rules.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:33 AM on February 18, 2010

Within the U.S., you can quite legally take a public domain text from Project Gutenberg, delete the "small print" section and any other Project Gutenberg reference, and then do anything you want with the text, from making your own edition of the book, or an eBook, or even turn it into a movie script and start shooting[*].

As to the issue of US vs. UK copyright, UK copyright is author's life+70 years, and if you are thinking of who I think you are thinking of, he died in 1927, so all his works are in the public domain in the UK as well (as of 1997). If it is someone else, who published pre-1900, but died after 1940 -- H.G. Wells for instance, who died in 1946 -- then his works could be public domain in the U.S., but not in the UK, where (in the case of Wells) they will remain under copyright until 2016. That means you would be fine doing what you describe in the US, but you couldn't publish your work in the UK without approval from the author's estate.

[*] Actually, there can be some issues if there is also a trademark involved, for instance, Tarzan. The first eight Tarzan novels are public domain in the US, but the Burroughs estate has a trademark on Tarzan-the-character, so if you went and tried to turn a public domain Tarzan novel into a comic book, you could run into trouble if you didn't have their authorization.
posted by fings at 11:40 AM on February 18, 2010

Sort of tangental, but if you want to encourage people to spread your new work, look into Creative Commons. (The reason being that your contributions reset the copyright clock.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:16 PM on February 18, 2010

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