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About Writing Right: The Blog


Someone I never met asked someone he never met if he could legally change the book cover and rewrite the copy for a book originally published in 1937. It has no copyright notice anywhere inside. Interestingly enough, several people responded. Here was my buck-and-a-half reply.

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I see you have received several answers to your question. Congratulations. Unfortunately, none of them adequately advises you on the legalities of what you're asking. One respondent's advice to wait another decade before proceeding is woefully inadequate. Another one's suggestion to check the title with the Library of Congress likewise may tell you when the book was published but not whether or not it's still under copyright or ever has been. And a third respondent's suggestion that you Google it is absurd. All that will tell you is whether or not the book has been mapped by Google's spiders.


To know for sure what the law is, why not go directly to the horse's mouth? Here's what the U.S. Copyright Office has to say about it:

  • The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.

As an alternative, you can check Project Gutenberg, which attempts to digitize all books in the public domain to make available to everyone free of charge. If you find a book listed with them, it's a near certainty that it's in the Public Domain. But, the caveat is that Project Gutenberg may not have digitized your book in question yet. That doesn't mean they won't do so tomorrow or that they haven't done so yet because the book is still under copyright.


So, where does all that leave us? How about with your original question, which includes the phrase, "Am I able to change the book cover and rewrite it?" The answer to that part of your question may hold the surest bet yet for you to use the original 1937 book in question safely. But to paraphrase and rewrite it instead of copying it word-for-word. There is no copyright restriction on concepts or ideas but only on the stylistics of the writing. Word order and phrasing are key. If you rewrite the original book, changing the word order while adding or subtracting some information from the original material, you create an original document that belongs, by copyright, to you.


As an example, let's compare these three sentences.

  1. ORIGINAL: John went to the store and bought some cookies for the birthday bash.

  2. LIGHTLY EDITED: Jake went to the store and bought some cookies for the anniversary bash.

  3. TOTALLY REVISED: When he went shopping that night, John picked up some cookies and ice cream for the party he'd been invited to attend the following Saturday.

Do you see the difference? In the "lightly edited" version, simply changing a word or two while maintaining the original word order is a violation of copyright law, because you're using a product that is intrinsically the same as the original. In the "totally revised" version, you have created a different word order using different words and phrases (with occasional and allowable exceptions) while adding and subtracting some words and substantially altering the order of the original material to read as your own creation.


Similarly, if you change the original cover substantively so that it no longer resembles the original cover but is instead a derivative of the original and, therefore, a completely new work of art, you'll own the copyright to that and can use it however you desire. Here are three examples of covers for the same book that illustrate my point:














Are you beginning to see what I'm getting at here? There's a big difference between 1.) copying the original art; 2.) editing the original art lightly so that it's still recognizable, and 3.) completely revising the original art to be a unique work unto itself.


With all that said, here's one point to remember: If you think there's any chance you may still be sued for copyright infringement, run the original work and your revisions past an attorney specializing in intellectual property rights. You can search the ABA or online to find someone with the appropriate references. In that way, you're virtually assured that, even if someone does take you to court, you'll win, and he'll lose—big time!


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.

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