Your winter reading list just got more accessible, thanks to a project funded by the New York Public Library. Most books published in America before 1964 are in the public domain because the authors didn’t extend the copyright. And their aversion to paperwork is our gain, because many of these are available for free online, with more being added every day.
Note: In Australia, most written works enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the author. You should therefore exercise caution when accessing books that do not pass this criteria.
Here’s how it works: the Library of Congress has published the Catalogue of Copyright Entries including all the registration and renewal information on American books through the 1970s. The Internet Archive — a non-profit library of free materials—has digital versions of the lists by the Library of Congress, but someone still had to sort through all the records to figure out which books were in the public domain (and that’s changing constantly as copyrights expire).
And that’s where the heroes at the New York Public Library come in: in an absolutely massive project, they digitised each all the registration and copyright expiration information, so now it’s available via a digital search. To give you an idea of just how many books we’re talking about, around 80 per cent of American books published between 1923 to 1964 are in the public domain.
How to access the books
To start with, you can check sites that make public domain materials available, like Project Gutenberg, Standard eBooks and The Hathi Trust, which continually add new items. Another option comes courtesy of Leonard Richardson, a blogger and programer in New York City behind the site News You Can Bruise. He has created a Mastodon bot called Secretly Public Domain, which adds one of the newly discovered books every day. Happy reading!