Whoops! Are you an accidental pirate?
No parrot? Check. No eyepatch? Check. No pegleg? Check. No single earring? Okay, we’ll let that slide.
Factoid: pirates wore a single earring because they thought it would improve their vision (important on the high seas) through acupuncture.
So, apparently, you aren’t hanging out in Tortuga in the 17th Century.
But you might be a pirate.
The issue is downloading unauthorized books that are still under copyright in your jurisdiction.
That can be harder to tell than you think.
This is one of the weird issues with the way that the internet reaches across the world…but laws don’t.
You could easily go to a site hosted in, say, Australia, and download a book that is legal for residents of that country. If you are in the US, though, it could be illegal.
First off, should you care? I think so. I want to follow the laws…since I want the protection of the laws, I think I should follow them as well. That’s going to be your decision. I think it’s wrong, and certainly don’t support it.
Second, are you going to be prosecuted for it? That’s another question entirely. Generally, prosecutions are for distribution of copyrighted materials, rather than for purchasing. You are pretty much allowed to assume that someone has gotten the necessary rights clearance. If you buy a paperbook in a bookstore (remember those?) , you are allowed to assume that the appropriate clearances have been obtained for photos appearing in that book.
However, if you know that the material you are buying is illegal, that could be a problem. You’ll rarely find pirate sites that tell you that an e-book file is illegal.
Note, though, that many free sites include statements about the books. They may tell you that the book is legal in countries where the copyright term is Life+70, for example.
At that point, it seems incumbent on you to check. Again, I don’t think you’d get in trouble if you downloaded one by mistake…if that happens, just delete it, in my opinion. However, if you do want to comply with the law, you should know what it is.
If you are in the US, figuring out whether something is in the public domain or not can actually be tricky.
The easy one is books first published in the US prior to 1923. You’re okay with those…and that is a lot of books, certainly.
After that, it’s harder.
If the book was published after 1977, it’s almost certainly not in the public domain. The only exception is books published between 1978 and March 1, 1989 which were published without a proper copyright notice, and didn’t fix the problem. That’s going to be a tiny group.
For books published between 1923 and 1977, it depends on whether it was published with a proper copyright notice, and whether or not it was renewed.
It would be great if you could just go online and check, but the Copyright Office doesn’t have everything online yet. You can search here. That’s certainly not comprehensive, though.
I really recommend the site, Public Domain Sherpa. It has a great diagram for US copyrights, and an even more useful calculator that will ask you a series of questions, and then let you know when a (generic) book would fall into the public domain (in the US).
This site, ibiblio, has a lot of information about individual books. However, again, it’s not 100 percent.
If you want to be as sure as possible, you can go to Washington, D.C., and go through the Copyright Office’s card catalogue. The other choice is to pay the Copyright Office to search for you, but that isn’t cheap. It’s $165 an hour, with a minimum of two hours ($370). If you want to do that, you can start here.
I’d love to see the Government get all of these records on line. Yes, they’d lose that $370 for two hours fee, but I think it would end up helping the economy overall. A lot of the books that were not under copyright would be issued in new editions…certainly many would be free, but others would be for pay…which means sales tax, in a lot of cases. States making money on taxes presumably alleviates some costs for the feds.
One other key point for the US: that Life+70 thing (copyright goes for the life of the author plus seventy years) only applies to books published after 1977.
Now, let’s say you are a US publisher (even independent) and you’ve digitized a book which is in the public domain in the US. Are you safe putting it for sale on a website?
Well, this one is a little fuzzy. If you put it for sale on a server in the US, that appears to make a difference. If it’s in the public domain in the US, it’s in the public domain in most countries. Most countries tend to be Life+70 or Life+50. If a book is in the public domain in a Life+70 country, it’s in the public domain in a country that is Life+50 (because that’s a shorter term). If an author died in 1930, a Life+70 country would make the book in the public domain in 2001, while a Life+50 country would make it in the public domain in 1981.
However, remember that the US is only Life+70 for books published after 1977, so that complicates things.
The only countries I know about that are longer than Life+70 are:
Mexico (Life+75 or Life+100 for works published after July 22 2003)
St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Life+75)
Spain (Life+80 for works from 1897-1987)
Cote d’Ivoire (The Ivory Coast) (Life+99)
The whole Orwell book controversy reportedly came about because the books were in the public domain in one jurisdiction, and not in the US.
I have to be clear, check your own county’s laws, to be sure. I can give you a basic idea here, but I’m basing a lot of this on a Wikipedia page.
Generally, Asia and Africa have Life+50, but so does Canada. Australia breaks the Life+50/Life+70 thing in 1955…if the author died before 1955, it’s Life+50…after, Life+70.
Generally, Europe is Life+70.
Take a look at the Wikipedia page, then when in doubt, check with your country’s copyright office.
My guess is that this whole thing will become much more standardized in the future. Commerce, especially digital commerce, is becoming more cosmopolitan, and it’s just going to benefit countries to have their works available in more places.
So, for now, if you are in the US and it was first published prior to 1923, you are okay. If you use one of the really majory sites, like those at Project Gutenberg or their Affiliates, you are probably okay, within the appropriate country. They do their own vetting and are high profile enough that if they made a mistake, we’d probably hear about it. If you are in the US, though, be aware that downloading from Gutenberg Australia, for example, may not be okay.
That was easy, right?
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.