Wandering Through the Public Domain, Episode 2

A regular exploration of public domain genre works available through Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, and Librivox.

By Colleen McMahon: Thanks for the warm welcome for my first entry! I’ll start with some responses to comments on that post, then move on to some new discoveries for this edition.

Camestros Felapton said: “Interesting that there are public domain works available from the 60s and 70s.”

I’ll start by saying that I’m not expert on the intricacies of public domain, and most of what I say now is based on the discussions I’ve seen about it on the Librivox volunteer forums and a little other reading.

The way copyright worked in the United States for much of the 20th century is that a published work’s copyright expired after 28 years, and then you had to renew it. If the copyright holder did not renew it, the work moved into the public domain.

This changed with the passage of a new copyright law in 1976. Works published on or after January 1, 1978 no longer have to be renewed and are subject to a single, but much longer, copyright term. With the most recent change, in 1998, everything published before 1923 is firmly public domain; for works published between 1923 and 1964, the copyright renewal standard still applies.

The statistic I’ve seen is that only about 15% of copyrights were ever renewed during that 1923-1964 period, so the vast majority of stuff published in that era IS in the public domain. The hitch is that you have to do tedious research to verify that the copyright was not renewed, and it’s hard to be 100% sure unless you are very knowledgeable about such things, or you pay several hundred dollars to have a professional research it for you.

(By the way, I’m not sure where that 1964 cutoff comes from, since 28 years before 1978 would be 1960, but that is the year I keep seeing in discussions, and there are some short stories published in magazines in the early 1960s that are on Project Gutenberg. Hopefully I can find out more about this and update in a future post!)

Works can also be released directly into the public domain. This is the case with that book of 1970s interviews I linked last time. The publication where the interviews appeared is long defunct and the copyright reverted to the author of the interviews, who chose to release them as a public domain compilation.

Because Project Gutenberg has volunteers who are very knowledgeable and careful copyright researchers, you can be 99.9% sure that if it appears on there, it’s out of copyright and safely in the public domain.

On Internet Archive, which allows just about anyone to upload anything, I usually narrow my searches to the “American Libraries” collections, because the libraries are equally cautious about making sure things are out of copyright.

I don’t want to encourage copyright infringement, so I will avoid linking anything here that is questionable; however, I will mention that various collections on Internet Archive are less strict with copyright, and are not hard to find there if you poke around a bit.

Ambyr said: “It might be what encourages me to finally download the LibriVox app.”

The Librivox app is very useful — I listen to it daily! But it’s important to know that the Librivox organization does NOT make the app; the app makers just use the Librivox material. The app also includes some old-time radio programs as well as some self-published/self-recorded contemporary audiobooks, neither of which come from Librivox.

You can stream and download Librivox works from the Librivox website itself, and all Librivox releases are also cataloged on Internet Archive and

Kip Williams said: “Viva la, er domaine libre! And may it start growing a bit faster.”

Fingers crossed, it’s about to, after 20 long years of being frozen. (More about that next time!)

Now onto this week’s finds:

Random searching in Project Gutenberg serendipitously led me to two lawyers who were also early SF authors, and who actually collaborated with each other: Arthur Leo Zagat (1896-1949) and Nat Schachner (1895-1955).

Arthur Leo Zagat has two stand-alone stories on PG:

(“Trapped in the great dome, Darl valiantly defends Earth’s outpost against the bird-man of Mars and his horde of pigmy henchmen”!)

Nat Schachner also has two stand-alone stories on PG:

(This is a longer piece, published as a “novelette” at the time but at around 30K words, would be considered a novella these days)

In addition, PG has a collection of full issues of Astounding Stories from 1930-1931, two of which include stories co-written by Zagat and Schachner:

The first 20 issues of Astounding Stories have also been recorded and released as Librivox audiobooks. These include the May 1931 and July 1931 issues mentioned above.

Other recent Librivox releases:

Although best known for his works of science fiction, social commentary and history, H.G. Wells here gives us humorous and light-hearted pieces on a wide variety of intriguing topics from chess to death. Each essay is a gem of wit and delight.

Mark Twain wrote this fairytale style story about 3 boys who meet Satan’s cousin and they experience many things during this time. The story is narrated by one of the boys many years later.

7 thoughts on “Wandering Through the Public Domain, Episode 2

  1. The 1964 cutoff is because the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 made copyright renewals automatic (1992-28=1964). The 1976 Copyright Act changed the extension duration from 28 years to 47 years for works already under copyright (for a total of 75 years when renewed), and changed the duration to life+50 with no renewals for any new works starting in 1978. In 1998, the Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act added 20 years to the US copyright term limits, so if it’s in copyright and published before 1978, it’s publication date + 95 years, or life+70.

    Canada is one of the few countries with life+50 term, although the US NAFTA renegotiation will force them to switch to life+70 within the next year. The US and EU have generally been pressuring all their trade partners to have a minimum copyright duration of life+70. I think Mexico has a duration of life+100.

    Unless the lame duck Congress does something, 2019 will be the first year of new public domain in the US since 1998.

    It’s not authoritative, but there’s a searchable database of copyright renewals at Stanford. If you find the work in question in their database, it’s definitely in copyright, but if it’s not found, it might be public domain.

  2. This is great. Love the early SF finds. Please keep these coming. I plan to check out the Astounding Stories issues ASAP. I listen to Relic Radio & wondered how public domain works.

  3. Canada is one of the few countries with life+50 term

    I think Australia is also Life+50, certainly the Aussie version of project Gutenberg has later works.

    There’s a wiki page of course:

  4. I’m a little surprised by the references to the magazines. Though there would have been little point in renewing the copyright on the editorial content of the magazines themselves I would have expected them to only have had a time limited right to reproduce the stories (unless magazine publishing contracts were very different from those applying later in the century) and that the rights would have remained with the writers.

    By the late 1950s the more savvy authors – if still alive – would have noted the number of anthologies of old stories being put out and might well have bothered to renew the copyrights. It sounds like an awful lot of work for Project Gutenberg’s volunteers to track down the status of the fiction in multiple issues of these magazines.

  5. Australia used to be life+50, but they switched to life+70 around 2004. Unlike the EU, where the switch from life+50 to life+70 was retroactive, and the last 20 years of public domain reverted to in copyright, Australia chose to leave what was already in the public domain in the public domain. I hope Canada will follow Australia’s lead, but those of you in Canada may want to download whatever authors you like who died after 1948 from fadedpage.com or gutenberg.ca just in case.

    One of the early efforts of Project Gutenberg was to digitize the copyright renewal lists, so it is generally easier to track down whether a work is in copyright, especially after Stanford created their copyright renewal database. However, it’s not completely reliable, since it fails when a work is renamed, or shorter works get incorporated into a novel.

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