I found a public domain book that has never been re-published and I wanted to include illustrations with the book. If I submit manuscripts to publishers, how can I protect my idea? What if they just use their own illustrator and take the book themselves from public domain? Is there anything I can copywrite? Or trademark? Such as, the authors name, the book title, or characters?

I hope this makes sense and appreciate all the help with this.

  • You can always go with vanity publishing, which is where you pay 100% of the costs and the publisher doesn't get any proceeds from sales (but more than makes up for it in cash from your pocket) - that way they wouldn't be able to block your publication and bypass you with their own illustrator (or at least they'd need to compete with your publication, which would be really counter-productive). But the cost of such an endeavor is staggering, and if your book is a flop, it's all on you. I'd seriously advise against; it's an option but not a good option.
    – SF.
    Jul 30, 2017 at 22:20
  • @SF Your comment conflates vanity publishing and self publishing, they are two very different things. Vanity publishing is when the publisher primarily makes profit from the writer, not the sale of books --you might or might not get to keep your rights, or get 100% of any profits. In self-publishing, you also assume all the costs, but there is no publisher, other than you. Jul 31, 2017 at 18:13
  • @ChrisSunami: Self-publishing practically means no chance of any reasonable profit; it only makes sense for very small runs; specialistic literature in professional/academic circles, as distribution is all on you and you just can't hope to reach broader audiences (no way to reach thousands of bookstores). Vanity publishing will take care of distribution for you - and in case you lose rights or profits, that's a particularly bad deal. But generally most of vanity publishing is more or less bad deal.
    – SF.
    Jul 31, 2017 at 22:14
  • @SF People self-publish very successfully all the time --if (and only if) they are very good at sales, promotion and distribution. Nevertheless, I'm not trying to promote self-publishing, just pointing out that there are important distinctions between that and vanity publishing. Aug 1, 2017 at 1:28

1 Answer 1


No. There is no protection for literary ideas, only specific recorded works of literature. If the work is in the public domain it is in the public domain and your idea to publish it with illustrations is not something you can protect or prevent other people from doing. Multiple publishers publish well known public domain works in various guises and there is nothing any of them can do to prevent other people from doing the same.

If you edit the existing work, the copyright to the edition you create belongs to you, but that does not prevent anyone from creating and publishing their own editions. If you create the illustrations, then the copyright on the illustrations belongs to you and no one else can publish them, but you can't prevent anyone else from doing their own illustrations. In short, you can protect actual work (it is protected automatically) but you cannot protect an idea.

(It should be fairly clear why protecting ideas is not practical. If it were allowed, people would scribble down hundred or thousands of idea and then just wait for someone to produce an actual piece of work that was close to anyone of those ideas, and then sue them. It would be like patent trolling, but without the pesky business of actually having to invent something. Therefore only actual work is protected.)

On the other hand, publishers do not rip off people who bring them publishable ideas. If you bring them a good idea that makes them money, they will want to work with you again, so you can bring them another idea that makes them more money. People do sometimes feel like they have been ripped off by publishers because sometimes works are published that are more or less like an idea that they pitched to the publisher previously. But the fact of the matter is that the same idea often occurs to multiple people at once, often sparked by some current event or pop culture trend. This leads to may false claims and many groundless fears. But the fact is that publishers love it when people bring them publishable ideas (most of the ideas they receive are hopeless non-starters and sifting through them is expensive and time consuming).

All this said, IANAL, and if you want professional advice, consult an intellectual property lawyer.

  • "It would be like patent trolling, but without the pesky business of actually having to invent something." - Like software patents :D
    – Erk
    Jul 31, 2017 at 12:02
  • Thank you for your answer, that was really helpful. Is there any way to protect myself with a trademark of the authors name or a new title such as "(Author's Name) Series". Trademarking characters from the story? I saw on a trademark site certain characters from public domain stories have been trademarked but I'm not exactly sure on what grounds they can do this. Can I trademark or copywrite my illustrations?
    – Syp-writer
    Jul 31, 2017 at 12:58
  • Trademarks are just that, identifying marks used in trade. I don't think you can trademark something unless you are actively trading using that mark. You can't protect an idea, only the execution of an idea. But again, your fears are groundless. The only place a reputable publisher is going to rip you off is in contract negotiations. Get an agent to protect your interests in the contract phase.
    – user16226
    Jul 31, 2017 at 19:42

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