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I'm planning to rewrite some old classics such as "Oliver Twist", "David Copperfield", "Jane Eyre", etc. in simple English. They will be abridged adaptations (with due credit given to the original author of course) of the originals. I'm aiming to target a young audience between the ages 11 to 18 and above.

Now, most (if not all) of the authors who wrote them are long gone and many of the works are published in the public domain and are available on Gutenberg, etc.

Would it be copyright infringement if I rewrote their works? Is there any authority which takes the ownership of the copyright and republication rights of these old classics?

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    'Public domain' means there is no copyright, by definition.
    – user207421
    Mar 28, 2022 at 1:12

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The duration of copyright depends upon the jurisdiction in which the work is published.

In the EU (and UK) this is 70 years after the death of the author (if there are multiple authors, it is 70 years following the death of the last surviving author).

In the USA there is a “cliff” currently at 1926 I believe, that moves forward each year – effectively works prior to 1978 are protected for 95 years. Works from 1978 are protected for 70 years after the death of the author. There is a special rule for works where the “author” is a corporation, whereby works are protected for 95 years from the date of publication.

This is a general outline, and there will be specific examples where this does not apply: “Peter Pan” is protected by a perpetual copyright in the UK, works in the USA where the option to renew was not taken up will have copyright expire, even where created after 1926, 28 years from publication (an example of this is the film “It’s a wonderful life”).

So, in general, works where copyright has expired are open to adaptation/republication without permission of authors/rights holders.

Where one should be careful about this, in a moral sense, is where your adaptation might mislead the public about the original work. During the 19th century foreign works were not protected in the USA, and it was common for those works – particularly British works – to be republished in the USA, that is, not authorised by the rights holder. Some problems that arose from this practice was that sometimes parts (even whole chapters) were not included in the editions published in the USA, and sometimes completely different works were given the title of a foreign work. In both cases this would have the effect of deceiving the public about essential qualities of the work.

In modern times there are many examples of classic works that have been abbreviated or otherwise subject to adaptation – the fact of this alteration is not always obvious to the reader or potential purchaser.

So, in order to prevent confusion, it is probably good practice to ensure that your adaptation is distinguishable from the original. For example, the title might make it clear that it is an abbreviated or adapted version of the original.

Additional observation

It is worth noting that your proposed adaptation would have its own copyright protection (for whatever term is appropriate in the jurisdiction where it is published). This should give you additional reason to be cautious.

You should therefore beware of basing your adaptation upon someone else’s adaptation, since you may infringe the rights of that adaptation. This is probably a rare case, but may be present in works that were left unfinished by the original author (where another completed the work, at a date that may be subject to copyright protection), or were otherwise changed or adapted after initial substantiation.

Particular care should be excercised in the case of translations, where even ancient works may have modern translations that are subject to copyright (for example, both Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes completed many translations/adaptations of ancient and foreign works into modern English, and those will have copyright protection until 2083 or 2068 respectively - or perhaps later if the term is extended).

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    In general, there is no such thing as a perpetual copyright. Peter Pan is a special case, governed by specific legislation to protect the royalties of a children’s hospital. Mar 27, 2022 at 7:00
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    I believe I made it clear enough that I was giving a general outline, but also gave two specific examples as to where the “general” did not apply. There are probably many other examples, from other jurisdictions, where one might need to complete some research to ensure copyright status. In the case of Peter Pan, the relevant legislation is available.
    – typonaut
    Mar 28, 2022 at 16:48
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    @BrianDrake I think Disney would disagree with you...
    – Michael
    Mar 29, 2022 at 17:45
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    @Michael This seems like a nice insider joke, but we are here to educate people about copyright, right? Disney is (in)famously claimed to have effectively perpetual copyrights due to repeated copyright extensions. I was aware of this, which is why I was initially confused by Peter Pan’s copyright (which is actually perpetual). Mar 30, 2022 at 10:58
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    @BrianDrake, &Michael, There isn’t anything special about the extension of copyright terms and Disney, or even the USA. Copyright terms for all manner of works in all jurisdictions have been extended (in a very few cases they have been shortened). Disney, and others, have achieved pseudo extension through adaptation (Mickey Mouse “looks” different to his original incarnation) and through trade mark. The latter here is indefinitely renewable, so, to a large corporation, is effectively perpetual. BTW, I don’t believe Disney has ever made the claim to hold perpetual copyright in its works.
    – typonaut
    Mar 31, 2022 at 1:26
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No permission needed for public domain works

As you note, after a certain amount of time, works fall into what is called the public domain, which means that you can do whatever you want with them, even create derivative works, aka a remix or adaptation (which is what your rewrite would be). The laws for what works fall into the public domain vary by country (usually it's 70 years after the author's death that a work becomes public domain), but all the works you mention are sufficiently old that they shouldn't be under copyright anywhere.

You will find places that republish classic works, but only because everyone has the right to republish (or remix) public domain works.

Note that some of the works on Project Gutenberg are by living authors who gave permission for their works to be distributed by Project Gutenberg. Therefore, they would still be under copyright and you would need permission from the author to make a remix. But places like Gutenberg will tell you the copyright status to help you out.

See my answer to How do you posthumously credit the authors of public domain content in your adaptation? for how you should acknowledge the original work.

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    I also note that different countries have different rules, so some classics are borderline -- public domain HERE but protected THERE.
    – Mary
    Mar 27, 2022 at 0:26
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    You just need to be careful and check that the copyright for the works have expired. We may think of some classics as old but in fact their copyright have not yet expired. One example is the Sherlock Holmes novels. More than half of them are already public domain but some are still under copyright. Therefore anything that comes from the later novels (eg. Enola Holmes, a more caring Sherlock Holmes as opposed to the cold impersonal Sherlock of the early novels etc.) may still be under copyright and the Conan Doyle estate is very active in protecting their copyright.
    – slebetman
    Mar 27, 2022 at 6:30
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    Enola Holmes is still in copyright because the author Nancy Springer is still living. Conan Doyle's creations (which do not include Enola) are out of copyright: the Estate agreed that in December 2020 after initially contesting Springer's treatment of Sherlock. Mar 27, 2022 at 8:22
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    @AndrewLeach I believe that was a reference to the Doyle estate suing the creators of Enola Holmes, alleging that it used elements from some of the later stories that they still owned (such as his being more emotional).
    – Davislor
    Mar 28, 2022 at 15:53
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Those works are old enough to be in the public domain, so copyright law doesn't enter into it.

Note that copyright is separate from plagiarism; it's still important to name the original work that you're simplifying, and it's author, not just present it as a new story that someone might think you had written.

It's clear from your question that wasn't your goal in the first place. But consider some hypothetical other person that used the original text (or large chunks of it) in a way that presented it as their own original work would still be discredited as a plagiarist. AFAIK that's not a crime against the original author or their estate, but could maybe be fraud against a publishing house if they got paid for having purportedly written this work and then it's only later discovered to be 99% plagiarized from an existing work. (Especially if that discredits it and hurts sales).

This is very hand-wavey; I'm not an expert on the details of this, but plagiarism is a separate thing from copyright infringement, one whose ill effects / key features include deception of the audience.

See also @typonaut's answer re: "moral rights" of the original author and avoiding confusion about this actually being an edition of the original vs. a simplified version or an abridgement. Also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_rights

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