Are there any restrictions in publishing of material with expired copyrights?

For example, Oliver Twist is a famous story by Charles Dickens, and people still buy the book. I would think that the cost of publishing (especially online instead of hardcopy) is low compared to the potential profits that can be earned.

If so, what is stopping anyone and everyone from publishing the book to rake in profits?

  • 3
    I have no experience in this area, but I'd imagine that the costs of publishing the book now, for a small slice of the pie that publishers like Penguin are already in the process of eating, would be too high for how little money it would make.
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 9:36
  • SF's answer below already has this covered, but some publishers do repackage public domain works and sell them for cheap - for example, the Barnes & Noble Collectible Editions series, which includes public domain and still-copyrighted works. These editions are unique, however, because they're marketed as heirloom-quality hardcover editions. Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 20:13

3 Answers 3


On the contrary.

The copyright/royalties costs are relatively minor comparing to per-unit cost, marketing cost, distribution costs (per shop/point of sales), retailer's cut, taxes - generally the author rarely sees more than 20% of the retail price, often less than 10%, at least in traditional distribution.

And the books, being old, are available from the library for free, are often found in personal libraries and second-hand sale (and sites like Project Gutenberg), meaning the demand is quite low. Trying to break even on these costs with such a competition may be difficult. Why would I buy a hardback Olivier Twist for $20, when I can have the e-book version for free, legally and without need to walk to the store?

With new, copyrighted books, in exchange for the royalties the publisher gets exclusivity: nobody can sell the same book cheaper, nobody can legally put it on the web for free, the libraries still have to purchase it (and then, during the "reaping the profits" period of a year, there will be maybe 10 or so buyers "lost" per a library copy - and if the book was good these may still buy a personal copy!) - essentially, copyright protects the interest of the publisher more than the interest of the author!

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    Editing/layout/typesetting also adds a small one-time cost (99 cent ebooks sell not just because people don't know about Project Gutenberg or find using Amazon more convenient). Small things like providing a decent preface can also add value. For shorter works, selective collections can be a significant value-add (illustration can effectively be forming a collection by inserting visual "short works"). Older works also often benefit from explanatory notes.
    – user5232
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 1:08

"...the cost of publishing (especially online instead of hardcopy) is low compared to the potential profits that can be earned."

For publishing online, the costs are low. But anyone can do it. That is why you can buy the collected works of Dickens, nicely formatted for whatever ereader you use, and with an interactive table of contents, for 99 cents. Or get the individual works free from Project Gutenberg (although they will hit you up for a donation).

For hard copy, the costs are not low. Try the following experiment: Figure out how long Oliver Twist would be, formatted as a book, and then price the cost of printing it using Staples.com or OfficeMax.com or someplace like that. You will find a cost of 5 to 10 dollars, depending on your options. And that's not even a real book binding!

So, either way, it's not easy to "rake in profits" from out-of-copyright books.

[Eerie coincidence: I started reading Oliver Twist this morning. (On a Kindle.)]

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    But the cost of printing couldn't possibly hit 5 dollars per piece when they do it in bulk right?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 21:01
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    @Pacerier Bulk production implies long-term warehousing (adding cost and risk) or popularity. Popular public domain books are already produced by established publishers who can have lower costs, better distribution arrangements, and brand recognition. For a paperback, having Dover or Penguin as publisher might add 5% or more to the value to me because I know the quality will be more than acceptable.
    – user5232
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 0:54

The very purpose of copyright, at least for publishers (then called stationers - early 18th century), was precisely to get a monopoly on the publishing of a work, so as to improve their return on investment. You do not have that monopoly with the public domain.

That being said, it is not completely true that public domain is uninteresting for them, depending on the competitiveness of the market structures. Foreign books were not protected by copyright in the USA for most of the nineteenth century. Mark Twain fought valiantly to defend the copyrights of British authors ... so that they would not be unfair competition to his own works.

It is also true that big publishers still publish a lot of public domain books, but only for very popular works which they are sure to sell. Small publishing houses may publish more specialized public domain works for specific audience. It is a very honorable activity, but they do not get very rich.

But in the digital world, there is no longer that much investment to produce copies of a book (copyright is about making copies). Publishers were acting pretty much as banker who invested money up front to produce a number of copies (so that each copy would not be too expensive), and recouped the investment as copies were being sold, if they were. This is no longer needed in the digital world, and publishers have lost their main usefulness. They had other roles that can still be provided as service, not as an industry controling the whole business of textual publishing.

I suspect publishers will cease to exist as we know them in a not very distant future. Not needed economically.

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