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]

Rare First Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Sold for More Than $56,000

UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Publishers weren't very optimistic about the future of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone when they printed it in 1997. Only 500 first edition copies were made, 300 of which were donated to libraries. As anyone who's been to a bookstore, movie theater, or theme park in the past two decades knows, that prediction couldn't have been further off.

Book one of the Harry Potter series spawned one of the most successful literary franchises of all time and earned millions for author J.K. Rowling. That means those rare first edition prints are exceedingly valuable today, and one of the most pristine copies ever discovered just sold for $56,500 at auction, BBC reports.

The sellers, an anonymous couple from Lancashire, England, had stored their copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone—along with a first edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—in a code-locked briefcase for safekeeping. The plan wasn't to wait for the books to accrue value over time; originally, they had wanted to protect them and pass them down as family heirlooms.

The couple changed their minds after learning that another first edition copy of Philosopher's Stone had sold for $35,000. That turned out to be a smart move. By locking it away, they managed to preserve one of the best first edition copies of the book experts had seen. The book also contained two errors that made it an even more appealing item for collectors. Its value was placed between $30,700 to $37,000.

At the auction, however, bidders blew past those numbers. It sold for a winning bid of approximately $56,500. The buyer will end up paying $70,000 in total to cover additional fees and taxes.

That's a significant amount to pay for a book, but it's not even the highest figure that's been bid for the title. Earlier in 2019, a first-edition print of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with several errors sold for $90,000.

[h/t BBC]

When Bram Stoker Adapted Dracula for the Stage

Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For one of literature’s most enduring works, Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t receive much of an audience turnout when it was first adapted for the stage. The classic 1897 novel was transformed into a play by Stoker the same year it was published—and only two paying customers showed up to its debut.

In Stoker's defense, it wasn't supposed to be a grand production; it was a copyright reading of the script, which was slapped together by the author in a hurry so he could submit it to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for approval and licensing and retain the dramatic rights. The play, titled Dracula: or The Un-Dead, was held on May 18, 1897—eight days before the novel was released—and was only advertised for a half-hour before the performance began. Considering that the play had a prologue, five acts, and 40 scenes, it’s unclear whether an audience would have felt compelled to stay for the entire thing anyway.

The dramatic reading starred actress and pioneering suffragette Edith Craig as Mina Murray. Stoker had originally wanted the actor who helped inspired the character of Dracula—the dark, mysterious Henry Irving—to act alongside Murray. However, Irving reportedly refused to get involved, telling Stoker that the script for Dracula: or The Un-Dead was "dreadful."

The play faithfully adhered to the novel Dracula’s plot, although many of the epistolary work's lush details were condensed for time purposes. A series of character monologues help move the story forward; Greg Buzwell, who serves as curator for Printed Literary Sources, 1801–1914 at the British Library, points out that they might have sounded wooden because Stoker was better at scenic details than straight-up dialogue.

Following Dracula's stage debut, Stoker’s bloodthirsty Count didn’t reappear in theaters until 1924. However, the original play’s script offers a peek into Bram Stoker’s artistic process as he translated his characters from page to stage. You can check out the hodgepodge of personal handwriting and galley proofs over at the British Library’s website, which gives a great overview of the play's historic legacy.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

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