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Can I copy or publish text—from a website—that is in the public domain?

The text was already published as hard cover, in many apps, and as PDF. But never for Kindle (AZW3).

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4 Answers

I am not a lawyer, but: If the text is in the public domain, then yes, you can use it. Be sure that it really is in the public domain, though—copyright lasts for a very long time. Also bear in mind that if the text is annotated, translated, or altered in any other way, or if it's a collection of public domain works, there may be further complications. If you have any doubts, you'd be best advised to contact an IP/Copyright lawyer.

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Please also note Amazon's rules for PD content: kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A2OHLJURFVK57Q –  Hazzit Feb 27 at 0:12
    
@Tom - not further complications - the annotation, translation etc is copyright to the person doing that –  Mark Feb 27 at 17:03
    
@Mark ... Unless that annotation, translation, etc is also in the public domain— Pope's translations of The Illiad and The Odyssey, for example. –  Tom Feb 27 at 18:08
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If it really is public domain you are free to do whatever you want*. You should keep in mind some things:

  • The fact that it is free does not mean that it is public domain. It could also be licensed under Creative Commons or something similar. Publishing it could then be illegal under some circumstances. Examples would be omitting the license, selling a CC-NC work or change a CC-ND work. In the latter case changing of the file format does not violate the license.
  • Copyright laws (and the criteria for public domain) depend on the country. A website hosted in Australia could host "The Story of My Experiments with Truth" by Gandhi as public domain without any problems, because Gandhi died earlier than 1955. It would be illegal to do the same in Europe, because he did not die at least 70 years ago. In fact for a European it would even be illegal to download them. At least add a disclaimer explaining where it is public domain (see Project Gutenberg for an example).
  • The website may simply be wrong when it claims that the content is public domain. For example in Germany copyright ends 70 years after the author has died. For this matter translators are authors. For example Antoine de Saint-Exupéry died in 1944, but the German translators of "The little prince" died 1952 (or later). So while the original would becomes public domain in 2015 the German translation would not. I guess you would be allowed to translate it yourself and publish your own translation, but I am not sure what implications this would have in countries where the work is not yet public domain.

*Some things may still not be allowed due to the personal right of the authors, but that is another topic.

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+1 Given the style of your answer you might want to include Perpetual copyright with the play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up by J. M. Barrie, as an example in United Kingdom –  James Jenkins Feb 27 at 11:43
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Both existing answers are mostly correct. To expand a little:

Copyright laws vary by country. For example, Wikisource contains works that are considered public domain by United States law. BUT that site also carries works that are published under Creative Commons licenses.

Then there is Wikilivres, which contains works that are public domain in Canada but not in the United States. If you take a work from Wikilivres and sell it in the US, you will be subject to US law for the copyright violation.

Also, there are works like English translation of Somnium (1608), by Johannes Kepler, which is published on the Frosty Dew website with what seems to be Public Domain or at least CC, but currently all English translations seem to copyrighted.

According to answers on the question As a US citizen is it illegal to access an ebook from a country where it is PD, if it is not PD in the US?, even reading (on your computer) a work that is public domain in another country but not in the US may be illegal.

Many works that are in the public domain are sold every day. Example Black Beauty on Wikisource & Black Beauty on Amazon

In summary it is all very confusing, there are about a million ways to get it wrong. Getting it wrong is called Copyright infringement, and you can be fined and/or jailed (depending on the laws of your country) even if you don't make any money doing it.

If there is any doubt Ask a lawyer, before publishing anything you did not write.

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Keep in mind that even if a text is freely reusable (like those on Wikipedia) there could be a copyright on it (in that case, you should cite the source and publish your work under the same license)

So: yes, if the original text is in public domain you may package it for a Kindle, and even sell it; but first check thoroughly whether the text is really in public domain.

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