Copyright Law, and why it’s okay to acquire free classic books

Thursday 3rd March is World Book Day and, if you hadn’t noticed, there’s an e-book revolution in full swing!

Did you know that if you’re a fan of the so-called ‘classics’, then you can perfectly legally search through Amazon and download many of your favourites to your Kindle device without it costing a penny?

Usually when a book is written and published, the author reasonably declares the work to be ‘copyright’ (you’ll have no doubt noticed ‘© John Smith 2016’ or something similar tucked away in the first few pages of a book).  But have you ever wondered how this protects an author, and have you ever wondered why some books don’t cost anything to buy?

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (last amended 17th April 2015) prohibits anyone from copying, adapting, distributing or performing somebody else’s work in public without permission.

Copyright applies to work that is by nature literary (book, magazine, etc), dramatic (script, play), musical (song lyrics), artistic, sound recording and film.  In addition, the work must be deemed to be original and demonstrate some degree of skill, or work, or some other judgement.

In spite of some artistes’ paranoia, activities such as posting copies of manuscripts to lawyers and the like aren’t necessary to protect oneself.  In fact it’s not even legally necessary to write ‘© John Smith 2016’ in order to invoke copyright on a piece of work, although doing so would at least mark the artiste’s desire for everyone to regard the piece as being protected as such.

So when can it be legal for someone to offer an e-book for free?

The clue is in who wrote it, and when they wrote it.

Copyright on a literary works such as books remains active for 70 years after the end of the calendar year of the death of the author.  Or if there’s more than one author, 70 years after the end of the calendar year of the death of the last remaining author.

For instance, this blog has been written in March 2016 so for the copyright of a book to have lapsed the author must have died during, or earlier than, 1945.

For example, Charles Dickens died in 1886 and this falls well within the ’70 years after death’ parameter and therefore all his books are technically copyright-free whereas H.G. Wells died in 1946 and therefore the copyright on his books will last until 1st January 2017.

This is great news for e-book bargain hunters.  There are more than a few e-publishers who are willing to produce an e-book and then make it available on Amazon for free.

In fact we’ve collated a short list of some classic authors with titles that are, at the time of publishing this blog, available as e-books for free!

(Naturally the prices of these books may change from zero, if so simply search Amazon for many more free classic e-books.) 

But there’s one famous exception in the UK to copyright law.

J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan, and when he died in 1937 he stipulated in his will that the copyright for this particular book’s sales should be bequeathed to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.

Back then, copyright lasted until 50 years after an author’s death, so the British Government extended this another twenty years to 2007 in order that Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital could benefit for longer from Barrie’s royalty proceeds.

While no legislation actually remains to enforce the lapse in copyright, this remains the case and Great Ormond Street continues to benefit still, today.

Blog written by: Mark Wilson, Copywriter at QualitySolicitors and author of the King Richard III: The Death of a Dynasty trilogy (although this is sadly not out of copyright!)