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Public Domain Books Question

Thomas asks…

How do you find out whether a book etc. is in the public domain?

How do you find out whether a something is in the public domain?

I’m curious whether the childrens books of Thornton Burgess, and the illustrations in them by Harrison Cady, are in the public domain.

scottparat answers:


This is from the US Copyright Office. You can figure it out yourself:

The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.

Here’s the link for frequently asked questions:


Jenny asks…

When is it okay to make a digital copy of a book?

I have some very old books, before 1923, that I could turn into ebooks because there’s not very many prints of them. Problem is, the books are foreign (I’m American) so I don’t know how the copyright works. I believe books in America, anything before 1923 is public domain and my books are certainly older than that.

scottparat answers:

I have the public domain prowler package and the legal information section therein includes the following:

Non-US Copyright Dates Table

– Before July 1, 1909: The work is in the public domain
– July 1, 1909-1922 with a copyright notice: The work is in the public domain
– 1923-1977 with a copyright notice: 95 years from the year of publication
– July 1, 1909-1977 without a copyright notice: The life of the author plus 70 years, but cannot expire before Dec. 31, 2002, or Dec. 31, 2047 if the work is republished during 1978-2003
– 1978 or later, with or without a copyright notice: The life of the author plus 70 years; for multiple authors it is 70 years after the last one dies. Works made for hire are protected for 95 years from first publication or 120 years from date of first creation.
(which ever is first)

I am assuming that this information relates to foreign creative works to be re-published in the U.S. (i.e. That they are public domain under these circumstances in the U.S. Only), as I can’t see how this could be a blanket legal statement for all of the diverse legal systems across our globe.

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