Millions More Public Domain Books Could Be Online Soon—Here's How to Access Them

noipornpan/iStock via Getty Images
noipornpan/iStock via Getty Images

You don't need to visit a bookstore or even an online retailer to find new reading material. Millions of books published decades ago are now in the public domain—and the New York Public Library is making it easier than ever to find these titles and download them for free. According to Vice, many books published before 1964 whose copyright status was previously unknown have been revealed by the library to be in the public domain.

Today, new books generally hold their copyright for 70 years following the author's death, but a few decades ago, the law worked differently. Any books published before 1964 had a copyright term of 28 years, and authors or publishers had to fill out separate paperwork if they wanted to extend it. Most either forgot or chose not to, and today roughly 80 percent of books published in the U.S. between 1923 to 1964 are in the public domain.

In the 1970s, the Library of Congress maintained a catalog of which books had their copyrights renewed, and anyone can view digital copies of that information on the Internet Archive. A quick glance at the documents makes it clear that many new books have entered the public domain recently—but tallying all of them posed a problem. The data was too vast for computers to process, preventing many repositories from determining which books were legal to upload.

The New York Public Library tackled this issued by converting the Library of Congress's catalog into an XML format. Thanks to the library's ambitious project, the copyright status of all American books published between 1923 and 1964 is searchable, and public domain websites are now busy updating their archives.

If you're interested in browsing the new titles that are now free and legal to read and download, there are multiple online databases worth checking out. Project Gutenberg, the Hathi Trust, and the Internet Archive are great places to find both old and recent entries to the public domain.

[h/t Vice]

Can You Identify the Classic Novel by Its Opening Lines?

Annotations in Copy of Shakespeare's First Folio May Have Been John Milton's

GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images

It's a well-known literary fact that William Shakespeare had an enormous influence on "Paradise Lost" poet John Milton, and new evidence suggests that super fan Milton—who even wrote a poem called "On Shakespeare"—might have owned his idol's first folio.

The folio, which contains 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, was published in 1623—seven years after the Bard’s death. An estimated 750 first folios were printed, with only 233 of them known to have survived, including one with annotations written throughout it. As it turns out, those scribbles might be Milton's.

According to The Guardian, Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren believes that Milton wrote those important annotations. Scott-Warren read an article about an anonymous annotator written by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. The Folio copy in question has been stored in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, and Bourne was able to date the annotator back to the mid-1600s. (Milton died in 1674.) It was Scott-Warren who noticed that the handwritten notes looked similar to Milton’s handwriting.

"It shows you the firsthand encounter between two great writers, which you don’t often get to see, especially in this period,” Scott-Warren told The Guardian. “A lot of that kind of evidence is lost, so that’s really exciting.”

If the writing does indeed belong to Milton, it’s not the first time the poet has left notes on another writer's work; he supposedly marked up his copy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Life of Dante as well. Scott-Warren and Bourne plan to pair up to find out if Milton left annotations on any other notable works.

"It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived—and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive,” Dr. Will Poole, a fellow and tutor at Oxford's New College said. "This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times."

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