Determining if a Work is in the Public Domain in the u.S.
Determining whether the copyright of a work has expired, making it free and legal to read online is admittedly a convoluted task. However, to clear things up from the start, let me say this: if the author of the work you want to read is still alive, the work is almost certainly not in the public domain. Searching for “read X free” is only going to land you on a sketchy website that has illegally uploaded your favorite author’s work. Your favorite author gets no money from any books read or downloaded from that site. No money earned for a book or series could mean that an author will have more difficulty publishing in the future. It could even mean that an author will not be able to finish publishing a series in progress. So if you want to support the authors you love, you need to buy their books or use the library (more on how to get books not carried by your library below).
Though copyright law can be confusing, you can fairly safely assume that any work published recently (as in, about the past four decades) is not in the public domain and should be not distributed freely online by random websites. In the United States, works published after 1977 are typically protected by copyright for 70 years after the death of the author. If the work was created by a company, it remains under copyright for 95 years after publication or until 120 years after creation–whichever expires first. Generally, a work in the U.S. is only out of copyright if published prior to 1923 (though possible exemptions exist for foreign texts published before 1923 but made compliant with U.S. copyright law later ).
You should research the copyright of any work you wish to read online free. However, this step becomes especially important for works published after 1922. Do not assume that a text is in the public domain simply because you see people distributing it online or even posting poems or excerpts on their blogs. You should also note that a single author may have some works in the public domain and some still under copyright. There is no easy shortcut to determining copyright periods.
Copyright law in the U.S. becomes very complicated very quickly, with various rules determining the status of works published in various years based on where and when they were published, whether the author was dead or alive at the time and whether the copyright was renewed at the appropriate times. You can attempt to use an online guide to figure out the copyright status of a work. However, your safest option may be to contact the potential copyright holder directly.
You should also note that disclaimers such as “This work may be under copyright” or “This work belongs to someone else” do not give anyone the legal right to distribute a work that is not in the public domain. Think about it this way. If someone steals a physical book from a bookstore and then offers it to you free with the disclaimer “I do not own this book,” they obviously have no legal right to give it to you. They are cheating the author and publisher out of the money they would have earned had you bought the book from someone legally allowed to sell it. The same thing happens when pirating websites steal books and upload them. No reputable website will try to confuse readers with sketchy disclaimers like this.
When searching for books online, you can also use some common sense. Most authors do not make a lot of money from writing. If an author could make money from their hard work by selling their intellectual property, why would they let other people distribute it online free? If you spent months or years working on an idea or a project, would you want people to take it and give it away free? If a deal looks to good to be true, it often is. Fortunately for readers, however, there are recognized reputable sources for reading books free and legally. For your convenience, some are listed below.
*If you want to learn more about following copyright law when quoting texts or using images, click here.
What to Do if Your Library Does Not Carry the Books You Want
Before we get into the online resources, however, I wanted to address a common complaint–that one’s local library does not buy the books they want to read. In this case, many library users in the U.S. actually still have access to those books. Here’s a list of legal options to pursue (though nominal charges may apply to some services at some libraries.) There are also some suggestions for individuals who find it difficult to travel to their local library.
See if your library partners with other local libraries.
In this case, you should be able to place a hold on a library book from a nearby city and have it delivered to your home library. You can return the book to your home library as well. Note that some libraries may charge a nominal fee for this service.
Request an Interlibrary Loan.
Even avid library users often misunderstand what an ILL is. An ILL is not a book from a library with which yours partners and you will not be able to request one as a “hold” through the catalog. Instead, you will have to email, call, show up in person, or fill out an online form. Then the ILL librarian will find the library from anywhere in the country and have it mailed to your home library for you to borrow. So if you live in California, you can read a book from a library in Maine. That’s right. Most library users in the U.S. have access to just about any book available at any public or academic library anywhere in the country. (Unfortunately, libraries might not loan out rare or older books, but you should be able to get your hands legally on that YA book you wanted.) Note, however, that some libraries may charge a nominal fee for this service.
Check the e-book catalog.
Libraries typically separate their e-book catalog from their physical book catalog. Check your library’s website to see if the title you want is available online as an ebook or audiobook. You do not need to own an e-reader to read these books. Most libraries offer Kindle books or books that can be read in-browser. The Kindle app is free to download on tablets, smartphones, and laptops.
See if you are eligible for a card at another library.
Most libraries in your home state will allow you to get a card if you show the proper identification as well as a card from your home library. You can then check out e-books from other libraries at your leisure. You can also check our list here to see if you are eligible to get a card online from another library in your state.
Submit a purchase request.
You can ask your library if they are able to buy the book you want to read. Note that some libraries may only purchase recently published titles and that some libraries may face budget restraints that mean that they cannot order every title requested.
What to Do if You Cannot Travel to the Library
See if you can apply for a card online and check out e-books.
Some libraries allow individuals to apply for a card online, though you may have to show up in person to activate the card fully or check out physical books. You can check here to see if you are eligible to apply for an online card for a library in your state–even if you do not reside in the city in which the library is located. Be sure to check the library’s website for all updated information.
Check to see if you have a local branch or a bookmobile.
If you are able to leave home, but find that the library is too far, check your library’s website to see what other options may be available. Many patrons remain unaware that their library has branches serving local neighborhoods.
See if your library offers homebound services.
Libraries have experimented with mailing books and having volunteers deliver requested titles to those who cannot leave home. You can call or check your library’s website to see if such a program is available for you.
free and legal resources to read books online
Project Gutenberg provides access to thousands of public domain texts, including some in languages other than English. This remains a favorite site for students, but readers looking for classic works will also find much to enjoy. Readers from outside the U.S. are advised to check their own copyright laws before downloading.
Simon and Schuster rotates a selection of their YA titles that can be read online free and legally.
Open Library provides access both the works in the public domain and to more recent texts made available for loan by various libraries.
Kindle has free apps for smartphones, tablets, and laptops, so you do not need to own an e-reader to access legal e-books. Simply download the app and then search the Kindle store.
(Amazon is admittedly not my favorite company to patronize. However, I recognize that many people prefer Kindle books over other formats. I also believe it is preferable for people to download books legally rather than illegally.)
Like Amazon, Barnes and Noble offers a free app for various devices so you do not need to purchase a Nook to read free, legal e-books. You can download the app onto your phone or tablet and then search the Nook store for free books.
If your library does not carry the e-book titles you want, you can check to see if you are eligible for an online card from another library in your state. You can also show up in person to a local library in your state and, by showing your home library card and ID, you can receive a card from that library and access their e-book titles. You are not necessarily limited only to the e-books carried by your home library.
Libraries often partner with apps like Overdrive or Libby. You can download e-books through these apps, read the book in your browser, or download a Kindle book from the library. Kindle has free apps available for tablets, smartphones, and laptops, so you do not need an e-reader to download legal e-books.
Nook also has a free app available, though most libraries seem to partner with Amazon rather than with Barnes and Noble. You can check out the free Nook book options through the Barnes and Noble website, however.