Millions of Books Are Secretly in the Public Domain

Genealogists are usually told that books published prior to 1924 are in the public domain and can be freely copied. Indeed, that is true. However, we also have been told to be cautious about copying large amounts of data published in books published in 1924 or later because those books might be under copyright. However, there are millions of exceptions.

Indeed, many books published between 1924 and 1964 MAY have fallen out of copyright. The problem is that determining the copyright status of a 1924 or later book has always been almost impossible. However, thanks to the New York Public Library, we can now determine copyright status easily.

According to an article by Matthew Gault in the Motherboard web site:

“Prior to 1964, books had a 28-year copyright term. Extending it required authors or publishers to send in a separate form, and lots of people didn’t end up doing that. Thanks to the efforts of the New York Public Library, many of those public domain books are now free online. Through the 1970s, the Library of Congress published the Catalog of Copyright Entries, all the registration and renewals of America’s books. The Internet Archive has digital copies of these, but computers couldn’t read all the information and figuring out which books were public domain, and thus could be uploaded legally, was tedious. The actual, extremely convoluted specifics of why these books are in the public domain are detailed in a post by the New York Public Library, which recently paid to parse the information in the Catalog of Copyright Entries.

“It amounts to an explosion of new books once lost to the mire of potential copyright claims. And they’re all free.”

The same article provides a lot of additional details, including where to download these free public domain eBooks. The list is expanding daily so if you don’t find what you want today, check back again later. You can read more at:


HathiTrust partner libraries have already been going through books from this era for several years and have opened access to more than 300,000 titles. See:
It seems that the NYPL effort is a welcome, incremental step which makes one of the sources of information on these books’ copyright status more accessible.
The article you refer to is not well written and includes bloopers like that “the Hathi Trust” is “a digital library similar to Project Gutenberg.”


Great News! Thanks!


US copyright is indeed complex. A good resource that attempts to explain all of the variations can be found here…


What a find, Dick! Thank you!


So I have a question – I have a handwritten manuscript written in 1926 by a family member. The author died in 1933. A university library has the copy that his descendants gave along with other papers in his collection. The library has stamped their copyright stamp onto every copy. I doubt that his descendants filed any paperwork and the manuscript has never been professionally printed (although copies of sections have been printed in a book illustrating photos of the town where the author lived). Can the library legally claim copyright ownership of this manuscript??


    Surely not. Not unless they were assigned the copyright in the will.
    My belief is that a lot of libraries and archives stamp copyright on things when they want to control things like access. Such control can be perfectly acceptable. But it’s not done through copyright but through establishing the Terms and Conditions of access. Ironically I suspect that an invalid claim of copyright would result in zero control of access.
    I suspect that these people don’t understand the difference between Terms and Conditions of access and Copyright


    “Can the library legally claim copyright ownership of this manuscript??”

    How long is a piece of string? It really is like that and would require research into the individual case to sort out.

    Simply put, unless there is valid documentary or testamentary evidence for a copyright transfer agreement or as another poster mentioned a bequest in any will for a copyright transfer to the university then no such transfer took place in terms of the law. If no such transfer or indeed exclusive licensing agreement exists then there is a phrase to describe what that university library has done: fraudulent misrepresentation.

    However equally you would need evidence for any stake you might have in the copyright if you were to do anything with that document other than to physically possess it.

    If no provision is made for copyrights in any will and no transfer or exclusive licensing agreements were entered into during the lifetime of the author then the intellectual property rights will have been inherited according to whatever bona vacantia rules are in place in the jurisdiction where probate/administration of the estate was granted.

    Another thing to bear in mind is that in the US during that period documents actually had to be marked as copyrighted for a copyright to subsist. So it’s entirely possible that the original may have never had any copyright associated with it either.

    Liked by 1 person

    I paid for the first set of photocopies (253 pages) – now the copies cost a lot more money. And since the manuscript is about my family (plus others in the town) – I have freely made copies to distribute to other family members. The author did not copyright the manuscript and I do not think he was finished writing it. I doubt that there were any provisions made in the author’s will. The author’s grandson donated the manuscript plus other stuff to the local Historical Society which he (the grandson) help to start – and then I think the Historical Society passed the collection onto on the Library at the University. I do not know if they consulted the grandson or other remaining descendants for permission. While I fully support that manuscript being available for anyone to read – I resent that the University Library has stamped a copyright stamp on every page and that their fees are so high for anyone to make copies. But I do not want to get in trouble for sharing this with my family. I have been telling them – ‘Don’t scan this and post on the internet’.


Please bear in mind that not all of your readers live in the US. In the UK copyright typically extends for the life of the author plus 70 years.


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