What Are Public Domain eBooks?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Public domain ebooks are electronic books that members of the public can freely copy and use without requesting permission. This includes books with expired copyrights as well as texts where the copyright holder has chosen to waive rights or rights do not apply. Numerous databases of public domain ebooks can be found online, and it is usually possible to find a variety of file formats to use with different types of ereaders as well as computers.

Public domain ebooks can be freely copied and used without permission.
Public domain ebooks can be freely copied and used without permission.

Works can enter the public domain when their copyrights expire and the copyright holder no longer has the authority to determine who can use and distribute the work. This can also occur automatically with certain types of work, such as published documents from a government; citizens can reproduce these and distribute them freely without violating the law. Individual authors or copyright holders can also choose to place an ebook in the public domain and waive its copyright.

Some authors make their eBooks available in the public domain as a way to promote their works.
Some authors make their eBooks available in the public domain as a way to promote their works.

It is legal for users to download public domain ebooks, convert them to different file formats, distribute them, share them freely, and adapt them in creative work. For example, an author could produce an annotated version of a public domain ebook and distribute that as a new creative work. The author would not need to ask for permission from the copyright holder or her estate, and could collect fees and royalties from the new work without needing to pay fees to the original copyright holder.

Some authors place their books in the public domain as a promotional tool. These authors argue that public domain ebooks reach more readers and can lead to sales. Readers might buy a hard copy, for example, or buy other ebooks by the same author after enjoying a book they found in the public domain. The exposure can also lead to more work for the author, including lecture series and other events based on the book.

Readers can access public domain ebooks through organizations that scan books in the public domain and make them available for use. Many of these organizations focus on books with expired copyrights, often with an interest in promoting them to a new generation of readers. Such books do not come with digital rights management (DRM) that would restrict the way the reader interacts with them. Readers can freely transfer them between computers, give them to friends, make them available for upload on a website, and use them in other ways.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Is it possible or legal to sell public domain ebooks?


@sunnysideup - Don't forget that public domain books include anything and everything written at least 75 years ago. There are a million and one books that I'd like to read that are in that group.

Even if I'm just downloading the Bible and the Koran...this is miraculous! We have everything at our fingertips. My grandmother (a librarian) would be overwhelmed and ecstatic knowing she could have all this to read for free whenever she felt like it.

We're spoiled!


When I search through free ebooks lists, if the ebook doesn't have an expired copyright, I will probably pass on downloading it. What does this mean?

I'll only download older books with a familiar writer, maybe so I can reread The Good Earth or Little Women.

Usually, if I want to download a free ebook, I already know something about the author or the content. I don't need to fill up my ereader with a bunch of books I'll never bother to read.

Just because something is free, like the public domain books, doesn't mean I need to download it.

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