Amazon revised the public domain publishing policy again, and I think it’s…

Amazon revised the public domain publishing policy again, and I think it’s…

great! 🙂

Back in 2011, I wrote about

New guidelines for public domain content

for publishers (often one person) using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.

At that point, they required that original material be added to public domain works for them to be published through KDP.

Let me explain that a bit more.

A “public domain” work is one that is not under copyright protection…in this case, that would often involve a book where the copyright term has expired. That work is no longer owned by the author or the author’s estate…the public now owns it (hence “public domain”).

Throughout the history of copyright in the USA, there has been a limited term of protection*. In fact, the idea of a limited time is in the original “copyright clause” of the Constitution:

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

So, once a book falls into the public domain, anyone can publish it and sell it and do whatever they want with it, without having to get permission from or pay anybody who originally created it.

One advantage of that to society is that it is a way for books (and magazines and newspapers) to become available to the public again. If you have a book in your garage which is out of copyright, you could digitize it and put it online…legally.

This is, by the way, not quite the same as “orphan works”. You may hear about that. The issue there is books which are not in the public domain, are “out of print”…and have no one to “speak for them”. For example, a book might have been published in the 1950s by a publisher that then went out of business, but had no “reversion rights” (under which the rights would have gone back to the author or author’s estate). That is being reviewed at the national level.

The one big drawback to Amazon’s 2011 policy was that it likely had a chilling effect on the variety of books available to us…and may have lead to the loss of some material.

Why is that?

Quite simply, not everyone is a creator. If someone had a box of old magazines in the garage, they might have digitized them and made them available (for a price) through the Kindle store…but not if they had to write something new about them.

Under the 2011 policy,they might have just tossed them.

Well, I was looking today, and the policy has changed! It now says

“In order to provide a better customer buying experience, our policy is to not publish undifferentiated versions of public domain titles where a free version is available in our store.”

This should make more books available to us…and provide people with another way to make some money. The money can compensate them for the not inconsiderable work of digitizing a public domain work.

I have done that myself in my work with a non-profit (in the past)**.

In fact, this makes it quite a bit more likely that I will digitize some of the works I have for the Kindle store…and ones that aren’t available now. Don’t look for anything soon…it does take quite a while to do it reasonably well. It will be on my list of things, though. 🙂

If you have some old books/magazines/newspapers, and are curious as to whether or not they might be in the public domain, I recommend starting with the

That can show you if a book is pretty definitely in the public domain.

If that doesn’t say it is the case, then you can go to

and start researching there.

Within certain timeframes, you can determine if a work is in the public domain there.

It’s all gotten much more complicated since it became no longer necessary to include a copyright notice, among other things. Copyright is now automatic…you don’t have to register them, although it can help.

The Copyright Office is working on getting older records to be searchable online through the Digitization and Public Access Project…they are making progress, but they don’t indicate they are done yet.

Summing up, I think that this loosening of the guideline is a good thing which may save some works from being lost, give us more options for things to read, and provide another possible revenue stream for individuals and organizations.

What do you think? Do you read public domain works? Do you think it’s reasonable for someone to charge for a book they didn’t write or help to initially create? Do you have any works you might digitize? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this work.

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

* I have explored the idea of permanent copyright in exchange for more robust Fair Use rules in Should copyright be permanent?

**One of the books I digitized (and Norberto Pellicci worked on it after me) was Behind the Flying Saucers [Annotated] (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping) I  added an afterword where I gave some of the historical context

When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

6 Responses to “Amazon revised the public domain publishing policy again, and I think it’s…”

  1. Harold Delk Says:

    I am still and always will be in favor of returning to the 14 year copyright limit. No exceptions, no extensions.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Harold!

      Well, a 14 year term with no extension would actually be shorter than what was originally the case in the USA, since it did have a 14 year extension option (if the copyright holder was still alive, which was less likely back then).

      So, explain the hypothetical economics to me. 🙂

      Right now, a rightsholder invests x amount of money and charges y amount in a profit/loss calculation based on the existing sales cycle.

      Would they…

      * Charge more?
      * Spend less?
      * Take fewer risks and do fewer “prestige” projects?

      I’m just thinking…

      Let’s say I was going to do a 20 book series, one book a year.

      When the 15th book comes out, anybody can do anything they want with the first book, without my permission or compensation:

      * They can make a substandard edition, full of typos and missing a section
      * They can make a movie or TV series
      * They can make an erotic version of my young adult book series
      * They can give it away for free

      In the current environment, I may figure that the first book’s sales go up with the 15th book…and I can price accordingly. I can also figure (and many people do) to make the money on a movie or TV series…and isn’t it much more likely for studios to just wait to make a movie for free with no negotiation? Yes, 14 years can be a long time…but not for everything (depends on the book).

  2. Man in the Middle Says:

    One of my pet peeves at Amazon is searching for a Kindle book I know to be old enough to be in the public domain, and having a hard time locating the free version among a ton of barely-changed versions typically listing for one to three dollars.

    If this new policy winnows out such chaff it will be appreciated by me.

    As you already know, I’m also with Harold Delk above in favoring a strictly-limited copyright period. If undeserved profits by over-large corporations troubles you, as I suspect it might, why should Disney Corp. still be allowed to protect even the very first Mickey Mouse cartoons close to a century later?

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Man!

      You can sort your results by low to high price (I usually do it that way), or you could start at

      and set your price parameters to zero.

      As to the Disney corporation…

      The world, especially the world of media, is very, very different than it was in 1787. The value of a work is different. That in and of itself does not suggest unlimited copyright terms…but I think it reasonably means longer copyright terms, which is what has happened.

      Second, you use the term “undeserved”. Is your suggestion there that the Disney Corporation has put no effort into Mickey Mouse since Steamboat Willie, or if it has, that it did so unsuccessfully? If Steamboat Willie goes into the public domain, does that impact Mickey Mouse in general? I would think it does…

      For me, I always go back to the author having created the work…why should it ever be that the ability to control that work is taken away at some point?

      I’ll probably need to write another post on this at some point soon…it deserves a more thorough and visible discussion.

      I’m curious: would you go with Harold’s proposal of a fourteen-year term without the original ability to extend?

      If I do write something, I’ll definitely speculate about how that would change things…

  3. Man in the Middle Says:

    As you noted oiginally, the Constitution itself specifies that copyrights and patents be for limited times. As I recall, the goal then was to be sure the author or inventor got to enjoy the fruit of their effort, while also ensuring all of society eventually also benefited.

    I consider the original 14 year term, with one renewal for authors still alive after 14 years to be ample. You don’t, but your suggestion of never-ending copyright conflicts directly with the Constitution, and harms the public. This is most easily seen with patents. Once those run out, competitors are free to incorporate those ideas into updated products, often at much lower prices. Imagine how much Aspirin might cost today if Bayer were still the only brand available.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Man!

      You are correct: the suggestion for permanent copyright would be in conflict with the US Constitution…and the Constitution (wisely, in my opinion) includes a mechanism for amendment (which has been used successfully 27 times, and, as I recall, unsuccessfully something like 10,000 times). Jack Valenti suggested a more expedient way than amending the Constitution by making the term something like eternity minus one day, but for now, let’s leave mechanism out of this. Let’s look, instead, at implications, since this is all really a thought experiment.

      Oh, but a question first about this: “As I recall, the goal then was to be sure the author or inventor got to enjoy the fruit of their effort…” Is the ability to “enjoy the fruit” achieved in the same timeframe it was in 1787? Are costs the same? Is the market the same? Is competition the same?

      The place where you and I would have a disagreement is your assertion that it “harms the public”. Virtually everything both harms and benefits the public…it’s a matter of balance. 😉 I’ll take it as that on balance, it would be overwhelmingly deleterious for the public. While that is an untestable hypothesis at this point in the USA, we can look at countries with longer and shorter copyright terms…let me know where you think the public has been harmed more in countries with longer copyright terms, and how you see the impact.

      I’ll look at it more with a post (you and Harold have inspired me to write one), but I’ll imagine the aspirin (or as you note, capital “A” Aspirin) one for this comment. 🙂

      I can imagine a few scenarios:

      * It’s a very expensive drug, and is therefore only available to the wealthy (or through significant subsidies). Let’s call it $10,000 a pill. In this situation, I would expect that less expensive treatments for headache and other minor pain would be developed…and there are non-aspirin alternatives today
      * It costs about the same. Bayer realizes that the most effective way to market it is to keep it affordable to a wider market rather than as an “elite” drug
      * There is a huge black market for it…although I think, with the benefits of aspirin, that would be less likely. A big black market might drive down the price

      Are there cases where a property is significantly more expensive or less available because the product is under protection? Yes, I’m sure that’s the case. Is that the majority of the time? I don’t think so. I would guess the majority of things bought today are under protection.

      I’m enjoying this discussion! Thanks! More later…

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