Wandering Through the Public Domain, Episode 1

[[Introduction: Colleen McMahon, who writes comments as cmm, is launching a new series of posts about sff available through public domain sites like Project Gutenberg and Librivox. Welcome to our guide to these resources!]]

By Colleen McMahon: Hello! I want to first think OGH, Mike, for kindly taking me up on my proposal to contribute a regular feature to File 770, in which I’ll write about science-fiction, fantasy, and horror works that are in the public domain and are available online for free. My plan is to make a biweekly post providing a simple roundup of links and short descriptions of books and other publications in our favorite genres. (Yes, your personal Mt. Tsundoku is likely to grow some new peaks and crags!)

Note: since I’m based in the United States, I’m going to be talking about works that are in the public domain in the U.S., that is, published prior to 1923, or between 1923 and 1964 with a copyright that was not renewed. I believe that most of the works I’ll mention will be in the public domain worldwide, but access to some items may be blocked in countries where copyright expires 50 or 70 years after the death of the author. I apologize in advance for any frustrations, and will mention birth and death dates where I know them.

My interest in public domain works is an offshoot of one of my hobbies — I volunteer for Librivox, an all-volunteer project that creates free audiobooks from works in the public domain. I had been listening to their audiobooks for several years, and decided to take the plunge into volunteering as a reader in early 2017. I quickly became hooked, and have recorded multiple chapters of group projects, contributed short pieces to compilations, and am in the middle of my third solo book project.

The process of finding books and other pieces to record led me first to Project Gutenberg, a site that has been publishing free e-texts of public domain works for decades now (Librivox is actually a spinoff from Project Gutenberg), and then to the Internet Archive, a huge repository of all kinds of stuff, from ebooks to music to film and more. I’ve developed a habit of roaming both Project Gutenberg (PG from here on out) and the Internet Archive (IA) looking through their offerings. (Not everything on IA is public domain, so I tend to limit my searches there to the American Libraries section, as most of it is from 1922 and earlier.)

I regularly come across F/SF and horror books and short stories, and it occurred to me that my fellow Filers might also be interested in some of these. I also thought it would also be a good way to raise awareness of these awesome websites and the work they are doing to make obscure older books and stories available.

So that’s what I’m up to here — a regular roundup of links to public domain works of fantasy, SF, horror, and other adjacent genres that might appeal to File 770 fans.  Be advised that I won’t have yet read or listened to most of the works I mention here (my own Mt. Tsundoku is enormous, though it would be smaller if I spent more time reading and less browsing..), so I make no promises of quality.

Enough with explanations, and onto the good stuff:

A recent File 770 post about R.A. Lafferty (1914-2002) led me to check Project Gutenberg (PG) to see if they have any Lafferty tales on their site. I found six short stories:

Four issues of Ray Bradbury’s fanzine, Futuria Fantasia, are available on PG. They are the issues from Summer 1939, Fall 1939, Spring 1940, and Winter 1940.

There is also one short story by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), A Little Journey, from Galaxy, August 1951.

Sometimes more recent books show up on PG, because the author releases them as public domain works. One of these is 100 New Yorkers of the 1970s by Max Millard. The introduction explains that this is a collection of interviews he did with famous New Yorkers in the late 1970s for a regular feature in a local free newspaper. Most are actors and others in the entertainment industries. Of interest here because it includes interviews with Isaac Asimov and Stan Lee, and possibly others with genre-related credits.

Recent Librivox audiobook releases:

The novel is set in a parallel world in which the existence of psychic powers has permitted the development of witchcraft into a science; in contrast, the physical sciences have languished, resulting in a modern culture reminiscent of our eighteenth century.

To escape from Mars, all Clayton had to do was the impossible. Break out of a crack-proof exile camp—get onto a ship that couldn’t be boarded—smash through an impenetrable wall of steel. Perhaps he could do all these things, but he discovered that Mars did evil things to men; that he wasn’t even Clayton any more. He was only—The Man Who Hated Mars. Included in this recording are four more stories by Garrett: Bramblebush, Viewpoint, Time Fuze and Heist Job on Thizar.

This is a volume of short stories of supernatural fiction by American author Emma Frances Dawson. Not all of the tales depend on ghosts, most of them are much more subtle than that. The author skillfully creates undercurrents, adding a distinct quality to these stories.

22 thoughts on “Wandering Through the Public Domain, Episode 1

  1. I’m very excited about this series! It might be what encourages me to finally download the LibriVox app.

  2. Thanks y’all!

    So here’s the deal with the works from the 50s and 60s that turn up in the public domain (and I plan to write about this in detail in a future issue) – it is likely that the vast majority of out-of-print books from 1964 and earlier ARE in the public domain, because only about 15% of expiring copyrights were ever renewed. But Project Gutenberg (PG) has volunteers that do a careful check to make SURE of non-renewals before they post anything there. So if you see something on PG, you can be 99.9% sure that it is out of copyright (occasionally there is a kerfuffle and they err on the side of caution since they don’t have money to defend lawsuits — they’ve taken down Christie works that are pretty clearly PD because the Christie estate has $$$ and is aggressive about pushing the issue).

    I also plan to write a little guide on the workarounds I have to make it easier to read and listen to works from these sites because the best way to download files isn’t always obvious. There are lots of formats and routes that I don’t use, but I had steered clear of PG and Internet Archive for a long time because reading them on screen was a drag, and my various devices (ipad, smart phones, laptops) would choke on various files and download routes. So there may be far easier and more efficient ones, and hopefully other PD fans will share theirs as well.

    I’m excited about this little project — I seriously spend way too much leisure time prowling around these sites and doing random searches, so I’m psyched to have a place to share fun finds. And if anyone has any questions or wants me to try to find something in particular, I’ll be sure to monitor the comments to these posts and file those questions away to write about in future entries.

  3. Wow, here in 0769 everything ever written is in the public domain because no one had an idea of copyright yet!

  4. I’ve used librevox a little in the past, but I don’t listen to enough audiobooks to keep on coming back. That said, I enjoyed what I did sample, which iirc was some classic Edgar Rice Burroughs stories.

  5. cmm on November 16, 2018 at 12:50 pm said:

    Thanks y’all!

    So here’s the deal with the works from the 50s and 60s that turn up in the public domain (and I plan to write about this in detail in a future issue) – it is likely that the vast majority of out-of-print books from 1964 and earlier ARE in the public domain, because only about 15% of expiring copyrights were ever renewed.

    Does anybody know how that works regarding US works outside of the US? I.E. do they still count as public domain in countries that had simpler copyright laws not requiring registration at the time or is that the rules of the country that they were copyrighted in takes precedence?

    Or is it safer not to ask because copyright law is a thing that destroys minds?

  6. Rule of thumb: Whatever’s longest. Pretty sure if you’re in the US, and some other country has miraculously managed to put a longer copyright on a thing, then you have to honor that one. If everybody else in the world puts a shorter copyright on it, then you have to honor the onerous US one.

    Whatever’s the biggest freakin pain the arse.

  7. @Camestros:

    The way it works, from what I can tell, is that whatever the rule would be for you in your location, you have to abide by it. For example, say there’s a 1922 copyrighted work being suggested for recording, but the author died in 1970. Totally fine in the US, but people making the suggestion or organizing the group recording project usually note that it’s not PD for countries with the death+50 or 70 rule. This means that the volunteers in the death+50/70 countries refrain from joining that project.

    I’m not entirely sure how it works in practical terms — if the text is blocked from showing up for you if you are in a still-in-copyright country, or the audio won’t play, or if it’s all by the honor system and everyone is very careful about the rules at Librivox and PG because 1) we’re a bunch of nerds that believe in following rules or 2) we’re supercareful not to get the sites we love in trouble with expensive lawyers or 3) some combination thereof.

    (BTW I think this is the basis of the Agatha Christie thing — there are several works of hers that are in the public domain in the US because they were published before 1922, but since she died in the 1970s, the estate in the UK is very insistent that NONE of her work is in the public domain. The pre-1922 stuff is still on PG and Librivox, but they have chased off a few short stories. It came up recently because we were discussing things we are excited about coming into PD in January when 1923 works hit PD. There are a couple more Christie books but the consensus is that the Christie estate is going to fight any attempt to use them based on the law in their location, and that Librivox and PG will steer clear of them, even though if they could afford to fight about it they would probably win.)

    On the other side of the coin, Conan Doyle died in 1930 so all of his works are in the public domain in life + 50/70 countries but there are about 10 stories that were published after 1922 that are not yet PD in the US. His descendants are equally aggressive in trying to maintain copyright but they’ve largely lost — for example, they were trying to use the fact that a few stories are still under copyright in the US to demand large sums of money for the use of the characters in derivative works published in the US, but the case was made successfully that the characteristics of the characters, location etc. were all well-established in works that ARE in the public domain, so as long as the derivative works don’t use anything that only appears in the copyrighted stories, it’s all good.

    The whole thing can be a major headache, so most people play it safe and only use works that were definitely published before 1922, in an edition that was also published before 1922, and that’s why PG is the gold-standard source for material to record on Librivox, because they have already done all the legwork and it’s almost 100% guaranteed that if it’s on PG, it’s safely public domain.

    I will probably find myself saying this often, but I’m not a copyright lawyer nor even one of the most knowledgeable people about copyright in general, and I’m repeating info I’ve picked up from discussions on the volunteer forums at Librivox plus a little googling. Mostly I also play it safe and stick to things that are either provably pre-1922, on Project Gutenberg, or both!

    Editing to add: with all of that said, one reason there is a good deal of post-1922 F/SF on Project Gutenberg is that there are enough fans out there who are passionate about old science fiction that they do the legwork to make sure the magazines or particular stories and novels never had copyrights renewed. There are also probably plenty of, say, pulp western stories from the 1940s and 1950s that are equally copyright free at this point, but they don’t have the same dedicated fanbase bringing them in.

  8. It’s quite possible as an American to read works on Gutenberg Canada and Gutenberg Australia that (at least to my knowledge) remain in copyright in the U.S. without having to do anything tricky on one’s computer. There is usually a warning that clicking the link may not be legal in all countries but that’s as far as it goes.

    As a law-abiding citizen, I would of course never encourage one to do this.

  9. I had a TL;DR length discussion that I was going to post, but I am surprised at the claim that Project Gutenberg is steering clear of Agatha Christie. They still have two works available from before 1923.

    PG got sued in German court by a German publisher (the parent of Macmillan, if you want to boycott) in 2015 because PG has 18 works by German authors which are PD in the US and under copyright in Germany. PG lost, and the German court did not force PG to take down the works if PG made them inaccessible to Germans, so PG is now temporarily blocking any access from German IPs. PG is appealing the decision. If it gets correctly decided that the German court didn’t have jurisdiction and their decision violated various treaties, then I expect PG to continue to post other Christie works when they become PD in the US.

  10. Wow, cmm, what a fabulously-interesting subject. Thank you so much for this and the other things you’ll be sharing with us.

    cmm: 100 New Yorkers of the 1970s by Max Millard. The introduction explains that this is a collection of interviews he did with famous New Yorkers in the late 1970s for a regular feature in a local free newspaper. Most are actors and others in the entertainment industries. Of interest here because it includes interviews with Isaac Asimov and Stan Lee, and possibly others with genre-related credits.

    I glanced through the list and saw Raul Julia and Bob Kane there. Asimov has both a shorter and a longer interview.

  11. @Bruce A.

    PG got sued in German court by a German publisher (the parent of Macmillan, if you want to boycott) in 2015 because PG has 18 works by German authors which are PD in the US and under copyright in Germany. PG lost, and the German court did not force PG to take down the works if PG made them inaccessible to Germans, so PG is now temporarily blocking any access from German IPs. PG is appealing the decision. If it gets correctly decided that the German court didn’t have jurisdiction and their decision violated various treaties, then I expect PG to continue to post other Christie works when they become PD in the US.

    This applies to texts by Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Alfred Döblin, all three of which are still under copyright in Germany, because all three of them died in the 1950s and later. Plus, the Manns and Döblin are classics, which are widely read and schools and universities, so their books are moneymakers. So I can understand that Holtzbrinck/S. Fischer sued, probably supported by the Mann and Döblin estates.

    Project Gutenberg blocking all Germans from accessing any texts, even if they are completely legal according to the life plus 70 rule, was a dick move, though, and a
    mayor annoyance. They should’ve just taken down the Mann and Döblin texts like they did for Christie or blocked Germans from accessing them. After all – speaking as someone who had these authors foisted upon me – it’s not as if they’re a big loss.

  12. @Cora Buhlert: PG is trying to avoid appearing to in contempt of the German court while they are attempting to appeal. Since at least one other German company has complained to PG about a US public domain book, they’re trying to avoid having additional lawsuits before they get the adverse ruling appealed. I don’t know whether PG keeps track of the death date of their authors so they can even programmatically block just the ebooks which could potentially be subject to another lawsuit.

    I don’t think they’ve pulled any Agatha Christie works so far.

    I haven’t been been working on projects at Distributed Proofreaders lately, but I scanned the Edgar Pangborn books available at PG. Sadly, Peter S. Beagle doesn’t seem to be all that interested in getting his in-copyright books back in print or even published as ebooks.

  13. Did ‘Garden on the Moon by Pierre Boulle 1965 ever fall into public domain? English translations of foreign works are difficult to keep track of and I know someone very interested in this alternative space race with a Japanese gentleman winning.

  14. Pingback: NEWS FROM FANDOM: 11-18-18 - Amazing Stories

  15. @Gary Denton: Since Garden on the Moon was published in the US in1965, it will be in the public domain in the US in 2061 (95 years after publication). Pierre Boulle died in 1994, it will become public domain pretty much elsewhere in 2065 (assuming no further extensions to copyright terms). The English language translator died in 1991. By then, I suspect it will become a nearly forgotten curiosity.

    @JJ: I was referring to Pangborn’s backlist which Beagle inherited, but I suppose that Beagle may have contracted all of them to Cochran’s publishing houses as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.