Starting at midnight on January 1, tens of thousands of books (as well as movies, songs, and cartoons) entered the public domain, meaning that people can download, share, or repurpose these works for free and without retribution under US copyright law.
Per the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, “corporate” creations (like Mickey Mouse) can be restricted under copyright law for 120 years. But per an amendment to the act, works published between 1923 and 1977 can enter the public domain 95 years after their creation. This means that this is the first year since 1998 that a large number of works have entered the public domain.
Basically, 2019 marks the first time a huge quantity of books published in 1923—including works by Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, and Robert Frost—have become legally downloadable since digital books became a thing. It’s a big deal—the Internet Archive had a party in San Francisco to celebrate. Next year, works from 1924 will enter the public domain, and so-on.
So, how do you actually download these books?
It largely depends on what site you go to, and if you can’t find a book on one site, you can probably find it on another. For instance, ReadPrint.com, as well as The Literature Network (mostly major authors), and Librivox (audio books), Authorama (all in the public domain), and over a dozen other sites all have vast selections of free ebooks.
There’s also a handful of archiving projects that are doing extensive work to digitize books, journals, music, and other forms of media. A blog post from Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain listed some of the most recognizable works published in 1923, as well as links to download these books on digital archiving projects Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and the Gutenberg Project. The books include:
- Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan and the Golden Lion
- Agatha Christie, The Murder on the Links
- Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis
- Robert Frost, New Hampshire
- Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
- Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay
- D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo
- Bertrand and Dora Russell, The Prospects of Industrial Civilization
- Carl Sandburg, Rootabaga Pigeons
- Edith Wharton, A Son at the Front
- P.G. Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves and Leave it to Psmith
- Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room
- E.E. Cummings, Tulips and Chimneys
In total HathiTrust, a massive digital archiving project, has also uploaded more than 53,000 works published in 1923 that just entered the public domain. Over 17,650 of them are books written in English. Similarly, Internet Archive has already uploaded over 15,000 works written in English that year.
Project Gutenberg, which has over 58,000 free downloadable books, has digitized five works that entered the public domain in the new year: The Meredith Mystery by Natalie Sumner Lincoln, The Golden Boys Rescued by Radio L. P. Wyman, White Lightning Edwin by Herbert Lewis, The Garden of God by H. De Vere Stacpoole, and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. I’m going to be perfectly honest: I recognize exactly zero of those books. But like most if not all digital archives, Project Gutenberg had some books from 1923 available for download before January 1, 2019 (like Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf.)
If you’re interested in academic papers, Reddit user nemobis also uploaded over 1.5 million PDF files of works published in academic journals before 1923. Your best bet for actually finding something you want to read in there is to know which academic paper you’re looking for beforehand and check the paper’s DOI number. Then, search for the DOI in one of nemobis’s lists of works—one list includes works published until 1909, the other includes works published until 1923.
It’s worth noting that projects like Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg rely on volunteer efforts, so there’s going to be disparities in the number of books available for download depending on where you go. But over the next several days and weeks, it’s safe to expect many more books will become available legally and for free across the web.