Whoops! Are you an accidental pirate?

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:

Guatemala (Life+75)

Honduras (Life+75)

Mexico (Life+75 or Life+100 for works published after July 22 2003)

St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Life+75)

 Columbia (Life+80)

Spain (Life+80 for works from 1897-1987)

Cote d’Ivoire (The Ivory Coast) (Life+99)

Other Countries

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.

8 Responses to “Whoops! Are you an accidental pirate?”

  1. tuxgirl Says:

    interestingly, i came across 2 books on mobileread that claimed to be PD in the US, but not canada. i’m guessing that’s due to some quirk in the 1923-1977 period.

    anyway, i just wanted to add in that downloading books that are under copyright still is not *always* illegal, if the author has published the book with the specific license allowing free redistribution. The most common of these licenses is a set called Creative Commons, or CC. This is actually not as uncommon as some people might think. Cory Doctorow is probably the best-known CC author with books like Makers, Printcrime and my personal favorite, Little Brother (realistic dystopian sci-fi set about 5-10 years in the future… think 1984, but plausibly set in the US in a few years… yeah, it’s scary)

    I agree that it’d be awful nice if there was an easy way to determine whether a book is under copyright in the US for the books between 1923 and 1977. I like mobileread, but it’s frustrating looking at a book and wondering if it’s actually under copyright or not…

    thanks for the resources you provided though!

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing!

      Yes, there are quite a few books out there that are both under copyright and for free. That’s nice for people to do, who chose to do it.

      What happens with some of those book in the 1923-1977 period is that they weren’t renewed. That part can be researched…but not online, easily.

  2. the ArtWench Says:

    Ah! Great info. Thanks.

    But sadly, just found out the copywrite to the works of one of my favorite authors of the early 20th century belongs to a bank. Yeah. Sigh…

    • bufocalvin Says:


      Do you mind sharing who that author is? Was the book written for the bank? Works for hire get longer copyrights, actually. Is it some estate thing? Just curious…

  3. Steve Jobs Says:

    Sorry, but I do not see any problem with downloading books from Project Gutenberg in Australia, even if they may still be under copywrite in the US. (That’s the 1984 scenario.) I do NOT consider myself a pirate. Making go through extensive checks is not necessary.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Steve!

      Well, there are a couple of issues, in my mind.

      1. If a book is still under copyright in your jurisdiction (the US in this scenario), the rightsholder is entitled to compensation for copying the book in that jurisdiction. If you are in the US and download a book from an Australian server that is legal in Australia, arguably, you are making a copy in the US (although that’s a little fuzzy). The rightsholder (who may be the author, the author’s estate, or someone to whom the author/estate has sold the rights, like a publisher) generally has the legal right to control copying within the US. This argument is that you are violating the legal rights of the rightsholder

      2. Project Gutenberg specifically says you shouldn’t do it. They say:

      “Of course, works which are in the public domain in Australia may remain copyrighted in other Countries, even for several decades. People may not download, or read online, such works if they are in a country where they are still under copyright. That still leaves a lot of readers out there to enjoy etexts of some of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century.”

      –short excerpt from http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:Partners%2C_Affiliates_and_Resources#Project_Gutenberg_of_Australia

      If you respect Project Gutenberg, then, that would be another argument for not downloading books from Project Gutenberg Australia that are under copyright in the US. Let’s say that a person thinks that restriction shouldn’t exist, and chooses not to follow it just under that basis. There is a significant risk to Project Gutenberg, which in my opinion has been a great force for good. If PG knowingly encouraged people to download files in a jurisdiction where the copying of that book is under the control of a rightsholder, that rightsholder could possibly take successful action against PG…even causing the site to be removed altogether (due to the financial risk, if nothing else). While digitization by other sites is, I think, becoming easier and more common, someone may be uncomfortable putting PG at risk.

      Summing up, you could be violating the rights and wishes of the rightsholder, and you clearly would be going against the wishes of Project Gutenberg.

      You may also be interested in this previous post on piracy, https://ilmk.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/pirates-of-the-high-e-s/ , for more on that issue.

      I don’t think extensive checks are really necessary, though…use the Project Gutenberg intended for the US, http://www.gutenberg.org , and no checking outside of that is necessary. That site, by the way, has books not available at PG Australia. Since we have these renewal/copyright notice display parameters, some works may be in the public domain here that are not in the PD in Australia.

      Thanks again for writing! I really appreciate you taking the time and making the effort to express your opinion here.

  4. Al Says:

    I think these paranoid authors should be forced to state where and when their book is under copyright. I am not about to spend hours and hours researching a clusterf… of a mess that copyright finds itself in. Stating that it is public domain in one instance does no service to anybody else in the rest of the world. If they don’t state it up front, then they are just hiding under a mess. Please don’t call me a pirate. Call the authors lazy, or call the legislators stupid or anything else, but don’t call me a pirate because I refuse to do extensive research on a book. If I cannot find it posted on one site, they are just flat out of luck.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Al!

      I was kind of kidding with that “accidental pirate” thing. In my longer post on piracy, I did make a point that I consider piracy to have to be intentional. It’s just that titling it “Are you an accidental infringer?” doesn’t have the same swashbuckling swagger. 🙂

      Authors, I assume, often don’t know when their books are going to fall into the public domain, especially in different jurisdictions. I doubt Stephen King can tell you when his latest book will be in the public domain in Algeria…and of course, copyright terms change.

      I don’t think that’s lazy. I do agree (as I suggested in the post) that copyright law should be much more transparent and consistent than it is. The biggest thing is that I’d love it if it was universal…but there’s no one-world government to make that happen, of course (and I’m not suggesting that there should be).

      So, I do apologize…I wasn’t calling you specifically a pirate. I was just trying to point out that downloading a book on the internet may be infringing on somebody’s rights…even though the infringer may be innocent of any bad intent. Yes, that’s largely a fault of copyright not having caught up to our modern world.

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