Create a Derivative Work from a Public Domain Work
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You can add to a book that’s in the public domain, or you can create a new book based on one that’s already in the public domain. This new book is called a derivative work.
This article will explain what a public domain work is, how to determine if a book is in the public domain, and also provide some examples of ways you can create derivative works from books in the public domain.
What is a public domain work?
A public domain work is a work that’s either no longer protected by copyright because the copyright has either expired, the copyright wasn’t valid because it didn’t follow certain rules, the work wasn’t eligible for copyright in the first place, or the creator dedicated it to the public domain.
How do you determine if a book is in the public domain?
There is no database that you can refer to to find out if a copyright is still valid, unfortunately, but as a general rule, if a book was published before 1923, it’s in the public domain – if it was published after 1963, it probably isn’t in the public domain – however if it wasn’t published without a proper copyright notice, it could. You can find out more about what a proper copyright notice is here at PublicDomainSherpa.com.
How long does copyright protection last?
This depends on when the work was published – if the work was published on or after January 1, 1978, then the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years. So, as an example, if I wrote a book and then died tomorrow, the copyright on my book would be good until July of 2083. However, if the work was published between January 1, 1924 and December 31, 1977, the copyright term is 95 years – so if a book was published on December 31, 1977, its copyright is good until December 31, 2072. However, there are other considerations, such as whether the work was a corporate work – to get a better idea on whether the copyright on a certain work is still in effect, use this copyright calculator or check out this diagram.
How can I create a derivative work once I’ve determined a book is in the public domain?
There are many different ways you can create a derivative work from a book that’s in the public domain. Some of them include:
- Writing a translation of a public domain work.
- Writing a screenplay based on a novel.
- Writing a biography of someone that contains their previously-published journals and letters.
- Writing a condensed version of a longer novel.
In order to qualify as a derivative work, it must use enough of the original work’s expression so that a reader will recognize that it’s based on a previous work. Merely borrowing ideas from a public domain work would not make the new work a derivative work.
What does the copyright for a derivative work cover?
Only the new material that’s added to a derivative work is entitled to copyright protection – that means the original work that the derivative work is based on is still in the public domain. However, if someone else were to create another derivative work that was substantially like another derivative work based on the same public domain work, then the copyright of the first derivative work would have been infringed upon, and the author of the original derivative work could press charges.
What are the rules for publishing derivative works on Amazon or other self-publishing sites?
As far as publishing on Amazon, I was unable to get a good idea on what their rules were regarding publishing derivative works – my suggestion for someone who wants to write a derivative work is to first check and see if the book you want to write has already been published on Amazon, or whatever site you want to publish on. If it hasn’t, it’s probably safe for you to go ahead and publish the derivative work.
I hope this post has provided you with a good introduction to copyright law and some ideas for the types of derivative works that can be written. If you’ve had any experiences publishing books based on other books in the public domain I’d love to hear them!