It is known that the copyright permission is not needed for old books (usually 70 years after the author's death), because the copyright has been expired. However, I am not sure how easy a public domain book can be published.

Consider re-publishing a book by Shakespeare. Since it is in public domain, this means that any publisher can re-publish it?

And if not, who is responsible for any hidden copyright?

How to check that we can publish a title legally? and how to be sure that there is no copyright restriction for publishing it?

For recent books, we need to ask the original publisher or the author; but for the case of Shakespeare's works, many publishers have re-published it. It is the case for most of old books.

2 Answers 2


One of the first things you can do is to check with the US Copyright Service and use their searchable database. In a lot of cases, the copyright may have been passed on to someone else as part of an inheritance, or it may have been sold to someone else. Using this database to search is a good first step. Keep in mind that the original author may not be the person who renewed the copyright. It may have been renewed by an heir, an estate, or a publisher, depending on whether or not the rights were transferred.

Something else you may need to be cautious about is whether or not something was later included in a collection of works which might have its own copyright. This is especially true with things like short stories, poems, cookbooks, and other smaller works. While the author or heirs may not have renewed the copyright on the individual work, they might have a copyright on that smaller work as part of a larger collection.

As an example, if you published a short story as a chapbook in 1970, it would be subject to copyright for 28 years, until 1998. However, if you took that same story and included it in a short story collection with some of your other stories in 1976, then the copyright for all stories within that collection would last until 2004. Even worse, if the short story collection was published in 1978 (which is when copyright laws changed), then each story would be protected until 70 years after the death of the author(s). (I actually experienced a situation like this with a story in which I was considering writing a derivation.)

You also need to keep in mind how you are going to go about publishing. If you are planning to use something like Kindle Direct Publishing to self-publish as an e-book, then you need to be aware of the limitations imposed by Amazon. Other e-book publishers have specific guidelines for public domain books as well, and some are even stricter. The most basic guidlines for Kindle are that the new work has to be differentiated in one of the following ways:

• (Translated) - A unique translation

• (Annotated) - Contains annotations (unique, hand-crafted additional content including study guides, literary critiques, detailed biographies, or detailed historical context)

• (Illustrated) - Includes 10 or more unique illustrations relevant to the book

Books that meet this criteria must include (Translated), (Annotated), or (Illustrated) in the title field.

Something else to keep in mind is that certain characters are protected either by Trademark or other legal means. As an example, even though the original Sherlock Holmes stories are now considered to be in the public domain, the rights to the use of the character are still protected by the author's estate and cannot be used without their permission. This is true for countless other major literary characters as well.

  • 1
    Hmm, I am not a lawyer, but I don't think you can "extend" a copyright just be including a short work in a longer work. If you could, then any copyright could be made to last forever by just continually republishing the work with a new appendix. Now, you CAN claim copyright to a collection as a collection. That is, if you took 20 public domain poems and put them together as a book entitled "My Favorite Poems", you have no right to the individual poems, but you can claim right to that particular collection and arrangement.
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 19:03
  • I was referring to the author re-publishing their own works in a collection somewhere later in time from the original publication. I personally could not take a collection of someone else's public domain works and publish them as a collection and thereby lay claim to a copyright of their individual poems. I added some more info to my answer to give a better example. Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 19:34

The public domain is the public domain...there is no "hidden copyright" if the text is actually in the public domain. So, yes, anyone can republish Shakespeare.

Note, though, that with something like Shakespeare you have to be careful to use a text that is actually in the public domain; in particular, you can't use notes and commentary that are not old enough (and usually the aren't).

Similarly, translations are considered original work, so you cant use a translation unless it is no longer covered by copyright (which is why you see so many publications of Dryden's translation of Dante, for example).

As far as determining whether something is still under copyright, it is somewhat complicated (the "death + 70" rule is just one of many and is only applicable in some cases). A copyright flowchart such as this one: http://jonathanlaphillipslaw.com/blawg/copyright-expiration-flowchart/ can be of help.

  • very helpful chart. Since I was talking about publications before 1923, my path was quite short in the chart :-) Does it guarantee that text is actually in the public domain? Are there copyrighted books published prior 1923?
    – Googlebot
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 5:23
  • Be aware that this excellent chart describes US law. There are other jurisdictions with different requirements. You could not breach Shakespeare's american copyright, since he never had one. There are many american scholars who do claim ownership of intellectual property in work "attached" to that of the Bard.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 10:02
  • Good point. But as the UK is a signatory of the Berne convention (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) its similar copyright protections do apply in the US, as do all of the countries that signed must be respected by other signatories (though of course not to Shakespeare, which is too far in the past to be protected by their copyright protections either).
    – Chris
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 15:38
  • And @All: yes, before 1923 is in the public domain (for US publications, as noted above). Other countries who (also noted above) have somewhat different copyright protections, so if considering something published outside the US, you need to check what their terms are. For instance, in the UK the rule is author's death date + 70 years. A quick search will reveal flowcharts or similar for most countries.
    – Chris
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 15:45
  • @Chris if wanna publishing a UK work in the US, which copyright law should be followed (UK or US)?
    – Googlebot
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 20:50

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