Copyright and Public Domain

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All LibriVox Recordings are in the Public Domain

Copyright is a legal concept that grants the creator of an original work (e.g., the author or translator of a book) exclusive rights to its use and distribution, usually for a limited time. This means that no one else can reproduce the text or make derivative works (such as audio recordings) while the copyright is in force.

Works in the public domain are those whose copyrights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable. Once a work enters the public domain, it may be freely used or exploited by anyone.

LibriVox takes a text that is already in the public domain, asks volunteers to make audio recordings of that text, and then releases the resulting audio back into the public domain.

This means that if you volunteer to record for LibriVox, you are agreeing to release the audio files you make into the public domain. This means that anyone can use those audio files however they wish.

In addition, book summaries, CD cover art, and any other material that goes into our catalog with the audio recordings are in the public domain.

However They Wish?

What does "however they wish" mean, exactly? People may use our recordings to profit; they may remix them into other projects; they do not need to give credit to the individual reader/writer/creator or to !LibriVox. Anyone may do all kinds of things with LibriVox recordings. Some we might "approve of," and other things we might prefer them not do - but Public Domain means that just about anyone can do what they like with the recordings. Here are some things that we know people have done with LibriVox recordings:

  • used the LibriVox recordings in YouTube videos
  • remixed LibriVox recordings into music, and sold the recordings
  • remixed LibriVox recordings into music, and gave the recordings away
  • used LibriVox recordings in art installations
  • made CDs of LibriVox books, and sold them on ebay (see here for discussions about LibriVox and Ebay)
  • used LibriVox recordings in non-commercial educational projects
  • used LibriVox recordings in commercial educational projects

Some other examples of things that might happen (but has not, to our knowledge happened):

  • CDs of Romance of Rubber sold as a fundraiser for a charity you don't like;
  • The summary of Frankenstein used to promote a major motion picture;
  • Fables for the Frivolous sampled into a violent rap song;
  • Origin of the Species as background atmosphere for a pornographic film;

Although these examples are far-fetched, they are all acceptable uses of public domain materials. So be aware of what you are doing when you free your recordings, text and images into the public domain. You really have to let go!

Librivox Source Materials and Public Domain

Public domain works should not be confused with works that are publicly available. Works posted on the internet are publicly available but may not be in the public domain. Copying these works may therefore violate the author’s copyright.

A copyright expires after a set length of time set by law. When the copyright expires, the work enters the public domain. LibriVox follows the copyright laws of the United States because all of our files are hosted with whose servers are located in the US.

In the United States, determining whether a work has entered the public domain or is still under copyright can be quite complex. Laws in the US have extended copyright terms multiple times, starting with the first publication of a work with a possible renewal term and shifting more recently to a term extending from 50 to 70 years after the death of the author.

In most other countries that are signatories to the Berne Convention, copyright term is based on the life of the author and extends to 50 or 70 years beyond the death of the author.

As copyright rights are country-based and vary, a work may be under copyright in one country and not in another. Therefore, a work may be in the public domain in the US, but still be under copyright in other countries.

LibriVox makes good faith efforts to ensure that the texts recorded are public domain in the United States. We do not, and can’t, ensure that these texts are public domain outside the United States. It is the responsibility of each reader and listener to determine whether a particular text is public domain in the country in which he or she resides, and to comply with local copyright laws in working on or listening to LibriVox project files. Wikipedia has country by country guidelines here, but LibriVox does not guarantee the accuracy of this information.

NOTE: LibriVox encourages all volunteers to abide by the laws of their countries, but we are not responsible if a volunteer makes a personal decision to act in breach of their countries' copyright laws.

Determining Public Domain Status

Public domain is a negative space, that is, it consists of works that are no longer in copyright term or were never protected by copyright law. It can be difficult to determine whether a work’s copyright term has expired. It can also be difficult to determine if a work is one that was never protected by copyright law in the first instance. Librivox is a volunteer organization with no budget to defend copyright challenges. We therefore take a very cautious approach to what is included in the Librivox catalog.

Published works that fall into one of the following categories may be included in the Librivox catalog:

  • Works published 96 years ago or earlier (the copyright has expired in the U.S. on these works),
  • Works authored by the U.S. Government (these works are not eligible for U.S. copyright protection),
  • Works which Project Gutenberg has determined are in the public domain (the Project Gutenberg website does include some works which are not public domain in the US, so be sure to check the copyright status in the “Bibliographic Record” section for the work you are interested in)

Each edition of a work may have its own period of copyright protection so it is important that Librivox volunteers ONLY use an edition which meets one of the above criteria. Also, every translation has independent copyright protection and Librivox will only accept translations which meet the above criteria.

Project Gutenberg has a mechanism for demonstrating that items published in the U.S. less than 95 years ago are in the public domain in the U.S. Project Gutenberg calls this a “Rule 6” procedure. This is a difficult and time consuming process for both you and Project Gutenberg because it essentially involves proving a negative. Instructions are here. Project Gutenberg will only entertain requests for Rule 6 clearance from individuals who have demonstrated their ability to do accurate and complete copyright research and will reject incomplete requests.

Additional Copyright FAQs

Why doesn't LibriVox use a Creative Commons License?

We had this discussion early on, and decided we didn't want to add any restrictions to the recordings we make, which are based on public domain books. This means others can use our recordings however they wish, including for commercial purposes. We would prefer if people acknowledged us if they do use our recordings, be we can't force them to. This makes some people uncomfortable, but the books we record are public domain, and we want our recordings to be public domain too.

See also Why Public Domain and not a Creative Commons license?

May I record an unpublished work?

No. Librivox policy is not to record unpublished or self-published works.

What if a work has more than one author?

Where a work has more than one author, it is normal to think of them as joint owners. If you reside in a “life plus” country, then the work enters the public domain for you when the copyright has expired as to the last to die of the authors.

Is it ok for me to record from an e-book or html version of a public domain text?

Usually, yes. If the original text is in the public domain, you may record from any online text that is a transcription, scan or OCR version of the original text. Copyright statements often accompany these new Internet versions, but the copyright only applies to the formatting and layout of the page.

However, if the work has been significantly annotated/edited/altered, the new version of the work may be entitled to its own period of copyright protection. New introductions or prefaces and book summaries are also entitied to their own period of copyright protection. When you read from a html version, please tell your MC the source you are reading from (e.g., Gutenberg e-text downloaded from Amazon) and your MC will help you confirm that the source you are reading from is public domain.

What if I want to record a translation or later edition of a work?

The fact that the original version of a work is in the public domain does not mean that all versions of that work will follow suit. Translations and adapted/edited versions will normally carry a brand new copyright.

For example: the original German version of Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) by Franz Kafka is in the public domain in the United States, since it was first published in 1916. However, the 2002 translation of the book into English by David Wyllie is still under copyright.

If you reside in a life plus country, then the work enters the public domain for you when the copyright has expired as to the last to die of each of the authors and translators.

How do I determine when an author/translator died?

Copyright rules will often state that a work enters the public domain so many years after the death of the author, or so many years after publication. This normally means that the work will enter the public domain on 1st January of the year following the anniversary of that event.

For example: in the United Kingdom, copyright is generally spoken of as expiring "70 years after the death of an author". This really means: "at the beginning of the seventy-first year after the death of the author". George Orwell died on 21st January 1950. This means that his works will come into the public domain in the United Kingdom on 1st January 2021 (70 years after the beginning of the year following his death).

The following websites may be helpful to determine an author or translator’s date of death:

External links of interest