Skip to navigationSkip to content

How to read good books for free without breaking the law (sort of)

AP Photo/Edward Kitch
The hunt is on for free ebooks.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Earlier this month, the Canada chapter of free ebook site Project Gutenberg announced that it had released all seven of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels into the public domain. Users from anywhere in the world can download versions of the books to their ebook readers or tablet computers.

Go south of the border, and suddenly the Lewis books aren’t public domain anymore. In the US, you need to buy them.

This peculiarity stems from a somewhat complex and inconsistent way in which copyright durations are enforced all over the world.

But it also means that the enterprising book lover, equipped with a generous travel budget and a capacious tablet computer, can hop around the world taking advantage of these different durations to download books by some of their favorite authors. Completely for free.

I realized this earlier this month when I went hunting for some more of Josephine Tey’s work. Her whodunnit book, The Daughter of Time, is rated among the finest crime novels ever written, certainly one of the finest I’ve ever read. I go back to it at least once a month to reread its opening passages.

However, I’d never read any of Tey’s other works. So last week, hoping to save some money, I went online and searched to see if there were any Josephine Tey anthologies in ebook form that I could purchase and download to my Kindle.

One link to led to another and there I was on an Australian free ebook website that had much of Tey’s work available for free download. At first it seemed a little dubious. I was under the impression that Tey’s work was still under copyright all over the world. None of her works appear on the definitive international website for out-of-copyright ebooks: Project Gutenberg. Tey died in 1952, and usually books pass into the public domain 70 years after the author’s death.

But this wasn’t some dubious Aussie pirate website. This was an ebooks website hosted by the University of Adelaide. It turns out that Australian copyright laws functioned a little differently from those of the UK and the US. Current Aussie laws also require a  70-year wait before releasing books into the public domain. But only if the author died after 1954. (Tey died in 1952.) Following a Free Trade Agreement with America signed in 2005, all books written by authors who died before 1955 are now officially out of copyright.

Thus books by authors such as Josephine Tey and Algernon Blackwood are out of copyright in Australia—but not in the UK, US, and several other countries where you still have to pay for them.

Turns out such inconsistencies exist all over the world. Which is perhaps why, in addition to the global Project Gutenberg website there are separate PG sites for several countries such as Australia and Canada. Simply because the definition of “public domain” means different things in different countries.

The University of Pennsylvania has a comprehensive analysis of copyright laws and deadlines here. The numbers get a little bit confusing, but the enterprising book lover should not be deterred. With a generous travel allowance and an iPad, one could easily hop all over the world obtaining a generous collection of free public domain ebooks. But which book markets to visit, and which to avoid?

The best countries in the world, according to the UPenn analysis are:

  1. Seychelles and Sudan. Both impose duration of life of the author plus 25 years. If you’re thinking of hosting a public domain ebooks website, these are the countries to do it in.
  2. Iran and Yemen impose life + 30.
  3. Canada and a whole host of other countries limit it at life plus 50 years.
  4. Russia, like Australia, appear to have released book by authors who died before 1955 into the public domain.

And the worst? Mexico. In 2003 Mexico extended copyright protection to the life of the author plus 100 years. So the works of Josephine Tey won’t become public domain in Mexico for another 38 years.

Though if you are a Mexican crime novel lover, please pause before pouncing on Australian websites. As the University of Adelaide website reminds: “However, works may still be copyright in other countries. If copyright in the work still exists in the country from which you are accessing this website, it may be illegal for you to download the work. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country.”


📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.