Rewriting Public Domain Books: Everything You Need To Know

Reading is a beloved pastime for many people. Those who really love reading, especially as a child, probably grew up to be writers themselves. It’s easy to fall in love with a book series, and sometimes a writer would like to continue the book series in their own voice, or they would like to rewrite it or borrow from it.

When this happens, it’s usually called continuing or rewriting. While this is somewhat easy to do, it does come with a set of instructions you should probably follow for your project to remain legal and acceptable.

Continue reading to learn all about public domain books, and what you’d need to know to write them into something new. By reading, you’ll learn what you need to know to give life to books of the past.


What Is A Public Domain Book?

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According to Wikipedia, a public domain book is a book that has no copyright, had its copyrights forfeited, had its copyrights expired or had been published without a license. In most countries, the term of protection of copyright expires on January 1st, seventy years after the death of the last living author to the book.

Once this happens, the book enters the public domain. There is one exception, in the United States where any book published before 1925 is considered public domain currently. Once a book enters the public domain, it’s available for use without any legal repercussions.

Many people use public domain books for their own projects. Some people rewrite these books, updating them for the times. Some people use pieces as a direct correlation, and some people adapt them into things like movies or music. Movies are a form of a public domain derivative.


What Are The Catches?

While using public domain works is completely legal to do, it should be noted that derivatives of the work are copyrighted. According to the United States Copyright Office, derivatives may be created from a public domain piece and may be copyrighted.

While this is great if you plan on writing or creating your own derivative work, it’s not so great if you had hoped to make a derivative out of a derivative. A good example of this would be The Wizard Of Oz.

While the book may be in the public domain, the movie is not, and any derivative of the movie would need permission before using any piece of the movie for their own work. Using exact names of said works may also be against the law, and would require prior authorization.


Where Do I Start?

If you’re still looking to start rewriting public domain books, there are plenty of things that you should consider before you begin your project. First, you’ll want to consider which piece you plan on rewriting, and you’ll need to check if it’s in the public domain. If the piece you’d like to rewrite or use is not in the public domain, you’ll need permission from the author, or the copyright holder to use that said piece.

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Determine If A Book Is In The Public Domain

A work is protected by copyright for the life of the author plus seventy years. So if a person dies in 1960, the book will be copyrighted through the year 2040. You will need to search the internet to see if the book’s copyright has expired. Two websites to check are the Reference Desk of the U.S. Copyright Office, and the University of Michigan’s page on copyright and related matters.

To find if a certain piece is in the public domain, you may also want to check Project Gutenburg. Project Gutenburg provides hundreds of public domain e-books for free, no registration required. You can scan what is available for something you like, or search directly for whatever title you had in mind.

According to Biblio, you may also figure out if a book is in the public domain by yourself. You’ll need to consider the last publication date when doing so, as well as how the book was copyrighted. However, in the United States, any book published before 1923 is completely safe to use under all circumstances.


Finding The Best Books In The Public Domain

The best books in the public domain are out there waiting to be found. Writers can republish these works on Amazon KDP and make real money. But there are millions of books in the public domain and many more being added every year. With so much to choose from, it can be hard to find which ones are worth reading and worthy of republishing on Amazon KDP. I will share with you one of the tips I personally use to choose good children’s books worth republishing and why.

The first thing I am looking for is a good story. I am a reader as well as a writer, so the most important thing to me is if it’s an interesting story with believable characters. If the author has done their job right, you will feel as though you are part of that world and rooting for those characters to succeed.

A good storybook is perfect for authors who want to make an illustrated book – the story is already written for you, all you need to do is commission the right illustrator (or illustrate it yourself), and viola! You now have a children’s book on the shelf with a story that was already worthy of publishing.

But before going ahead and choosing the book, I look at reviews on Amazon KDP and other book websites like Goodreads to see what people are saying about it before deciding whether or not I want to republish it. You might see comments such as “I read this as a little girl, I have been trying to get my hands on a copy for my daughter but it is out of print!”

Those types of indications will show you it is a good choice!


Beware Of Compilations

According to Public Domain Sherpa, a compilation is when someone compiles a public domain work in such a way that the whole compilation then constitutes a new copyrighted work. When finding public domain works to use, be sure you use the individual pieces, and not entire compilations, as they require approval for use from the new copyright holder.

If the piece you like is a themed compilation, considering using an individual part of the compilation, instead of the entire thing.

For example, if someone were to compile a themed set of short stories that an author published in 1923, that new compilation piece would be copyrighted as a new work. To use any of this work, you’d have to use an individual story from the compilation, instead of the entire compilation as a whole.


What Next?

Once you start getting into rewriting public domain books, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the United States Copyright Office. This office will help you copyright your own derivative once it’s finished if you choose to do so. They’ll also be able to help you get used to copyright laws, and the proper way to use books in the public domain for your own work. This is especially important if you plan to make money rewriting public domain books.


Planning Your Rewrite

Once you’ve done your prep work, you’ll want to find a unique angle that doesn’t match any other derivative that’s already been done before. To do this, you’ll want to spend some time Googling your piece and finding related pieces.

For instance, if you chose The Wizard Of Oz, you’ll Google the title with other keywords like “movies” or “continuations” to see similar works. Avoid derivatives of a public domain work unless you want to get the permission required to use it.


Begin The Writing

The next step when it comes to rewriting public domain books is the actual writing. Consider how to rewrite or continue the book in a way that doesn’t infringe current copyrights held on derivatives. This is easier than it sounds, as long as you keep the other pieces in mind. Take your time, and enjoy the process, the work will be better for it, and you’ll avoid any legal trouble down the road.

Take your time to map out your own work, and never rush into it. Be sure that you’ve taken the time to research all possible derivatives. For extra help, compose and reference a list of things to avoid while writing your new piece. This will help you avoid any copyright infringement.

Many people enjoy updating public domain books to fit the modern era. We’ve seen this done plenty of times with stories like Romeo and Juliet, which is also a public domain work. Consider your angle and try to make it relatable to the modern audience, especially when working with older or less known public domain works.


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Once you finish the writing, and you’ve edited your manuscript to the finished product, you’ll want to consider putting your new piece under its own copyright. You can do this by contacting the United States Copyright Office. A copyright is a great way to secure your own place in derivative history, and may even secure you extra income should someone want to use your derivative for their own.

Getting copyright requires one to contact the office and fill out the required forms. You will be asked for plenty of information regarding the work, as well as your own identity. You’ll also need to pay any required fees, and will have to submit the forms and the work to the applicable copyright office.

Getting copyright on your own piece is a smart move. It will allow you to license your derivative or continuation out to other creators for a price. It will also ensure nobody steals your work as their own. It’s always a good idea to copyright any work that you complete and plan to publish.


Consider Publishing

Once you’ve finished writing and copyrighting the piece, you’ll need to consider how you’d like to publish it. In some locations, you may be able to copyright the work after publishing, so consider that as well. When publishing your work, consider a few things:

  • How you’d like it distributed.
  • If you’d like to self-publish or submit to publishing houses.
  • What you’d like the published piece to cost.
  • Artwork and applicable graphics.
  • Your ultimate goal.

Consider how well known you’d like the piece to be, and how quickly you’d like it published by. If you’re looking to make a serious career, it may be worthwhile to consider submitting your manuscript to a publishing house or company. However, if you’re focused on just getting it out there, then self-publishing may be a great avenue to take.

Consider your goals and any costs you may accrue. Each publishing outlet has it’s own pros and cons that should be considered before you begin the process. Doing so will make your process more smooth and more rewarding.


Conclusion

Rewriting a public domain book is a great way to pay homage to a series you love. It’s also a great way to bring new ideas and stories into the world. While it’s not always simple and easy to do, it’s usually always worth it. Public domain books are a great source of knowledge and entertainment and giving them new life is a wonderful way to honor them all while bringing new magic into the world of literature.

Last but not least, you can make money rewriting public domain books. And, if you become efficient at it, you can rinse and repeat the process over and over again!

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