E-Books In The Public Domain

I received an email from reader Lynn about MyPadMedia selling access to free books. MyPadMedia was using Feedbooks feed improperly but the email prompted an issue I have wanted to talk about for a bit but never gotten around to: The sale of public domain books through every Internet retailer out there.



Dear Jane: 

I see promotions for e-book readers saying that the e-book readers come with $100 of free books but is this really a great deal?

~ Curious


Dear Curious:

Short Answer: It really is no deal at all. What the e-book device sellers are doing is collecting a number of popular books in the public domain and preloading them onto your reader. This can actually be a hassle when you go to power up your e-book device and have 100 unwanted books you'll need to delete.

But the great thing is that there are organizations that are creating digital books that are freely accessible to you without buying a digital reader at all. I highly recommend checking out Project Gutenberg, MobileRead, and Feedbooks. Feedbooks provides access to both public domain and original works. All free and perfectly formatted for your reading devices. One book you might want to check out (among the favorites from Austen and Bronte) is E. M. Hull's The Sheik which is one of the first captivity narrative romances and possibly the mother of modern romances. (Note: this is a forced seduction story).  

Long Answer: Public domain books are books whose copyright has expired and thus no one owns the rights to the books. Copyright is a legal term that describes the ownership a creator has over a work produced. An author has the copyright over the book she has written. She then sells access to her copyright to publishers in exchange for money such as an advance (up front lump sum) and royalties (when the up front lump sum is exceeded by a percentage of the revenue earned by sales of the book).

The author is entitled to a copyright for a certain period of time. When the statute creating copyrights was first enacted in the US, the length of a copyright was 28 years renewable for another 28 years. Since 1909, the copyright law has been amended several times and now the length of copyright is the life of the creator plus seventy years. Each country has its own term of copyright. This wikipedia chart provides an exhaustive summary of the different copyright lengths. It is the different copyright lengths that led to the Amazon George Orwell debacle. The Orwell books became part of the public domain in many countries like Australia, Canada, and Russia but they are still in copyright in the U.S. and the European Union. A company had been digitizing public domain books and included Orwell books in the Kindle release. The Orwell Estate sent a notice asking the books to be removed and Amazon complied by deleting the books off people's Kindle devices and sending a refund. (Amazon has since promised that they will never reach into people's Kindle accounts again and remove content without a court order). (Source: Boing Boing, Times, and Make)

Once a book has fallen into the public domain, we members of the public can do with the work what we want. We can take a Jane Austen book and create new works from it like the famous Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Or we can take a Jane Austen book, create a digital copy, and sell it ourselves. Penguin is famous for its Penguin Classics which essentially takes works in the public domain and repackages them for sale. The great thing about digital books is that there are organizations that are creating digital copies out of all the books that have fallen out of copyright. Digitization of public domain books is one thing that Google is doing and why it is claiming that it will have over more books available than anyone else.

  • Project Gutenberg is a non profit organization that is dedicated to the digitization of public domain works as well. Project Gutenberg has over 30,000 of the most popular classics digitized and available in different formats. You can use my handy chart to help you decide which format to download.
  • The readers at MobileRead have also been digitizing public domain works and these are also available for free.
  • Another great source of both public domain works and other free fiction is Feedbooks.

The point is that those $100 worth of free books can be had for free by anyone. You just need to know where to look. Happy downloading.


Welcome to Dear Jane, a weekly column based upon reader mailbag questions on anything relating to e-books. No question is too simple or too mundane. We are all learning together. Send your questions to Jane@DearAuthor.com with "Dear Jane" in the subject matter.