Public domain books 2023 and 2024

Public domain books are literary works whose copyrights have expired, allowing them to be freely accessed, used and distributed by the public. These books are no longer under copyright protection, making them part of the cultural heritage that can be shared without restrictions. Every January, a new batch of books enters the public domain.

A new batch of public domain books became available in 2023 and 2024. These books are free for anyone to read, distribute and use in any way without worrying about copyright infringement. 

Mickey Mouse’s (specifically, the version of Mickey from the film Steamboat Willie) entrance into the public domain in 2024 has generated significant publicity and discussion over the public domain database and its contents. It inspired this blog post, which looks at some of the noteworthy books entering the public domain in 2023 and 2024. Furthermore, this post explores why the public domain is important, how it benefits society and what implications it has for writers. Moreover, it provides resources for finding and accessing public domain books and tips for avoiding copyright infringement when using them. 

Mickey Mouse holding a wheel on a boat; this black-and-white image from the film Steamboat Willie is an example of works entering public domain.
An early image of Mickey Mouse from the film Steamboat Willie entered the public domain in 2024.

What is the public domain?

Public domain refers to the status of creative works and intellectual property not protected by copyright or any other legal restrictions. Works enter the public domain when their copyright expires, the rights are forfeited or the creator intentionally releases them into the public domain. Once a work is in the public domain, it becomes freely accessible to the public, and anyone can use, reproduce, distribute and adapt it without seeking permission or paying licensing fees.

The goal of copyright is to promote creativity. In turn, the public domain plays a central role in doing so, according to the Center for the Study of the Public Domain. Moreover, copyright ensures that those rights last for a ‘limited time’ so that when they expire, works can go into the public domain, where future authors can legally build upon their inspirations.

What is the purpose of the public domain?

The primary purpose of the public domain is to promote the sharing of knowledge, creativity and culture. Some key aspects and purposes of the public domain include:

Access to knowledge: Works in the public domain are accessible to everyone, fostering the dissemination of information and knowledge. This is particularly important for educational, research and cultural purposes.

Cultural heritage: Public domain works contribute to the cultural heritage of society. They represent a collective legacy of literature, art, music and other creative expressions that future generations can freely enjoy and build upon.

Encouraging creativity: By allowing free use and adaptation of public domain works, the public domain fosters creativity and innovation. Artists, writers and creators can draw inspiration from and build upon the cultural and artistic foundations laid by previous generations.

Avoiding copyright restrictions: The public domain provides a space where works are no longer subject to copyright restrictions, allowing for unrestricted use and adaptation.

Free expression: The public domain encourages freedom of expression by eliminating legal barriers that might otherwise restrict the use of creative works. Therefore, artists and creators can freely express themselves without concerns about copyright infringement.

Where can you check if a work is in the public domain?

The list of works that have entered the public domain can vary depending on the country and its copyright laws. In many cases, it is not stored in a centralised location. Instead, the public domain status of works is determined by the expiration of copyright protection.

When do works enter the public domain?

A work of authorship is in the ‘public domain’ if it is no longer under copyright protection or has failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner, according to the US Copyright Office.

Typically, copyright laws grant exclusive rights to creators for a specific period, after which the works enter the public domain. The length of this copyright term varies by jurisdiction and type of work. Once the copyright expires, the works are no longer under copyright protection, and they become part of the public domain.

For instance, the public domain books 2023 include:

  • works by people who passed away in 1952 for countries with a copyright term of ‘life plus seventy years.’ These countries include the UK, Russia, most of the EU and South America.
  • works by people who passed away in 1972. This rule applies in countries with a copyright term of ‘life plus fifty years.’ These countries include New Zealand and most of Africa and Asia.
  • films and books published in 1927 for the United States.

Similarly, the following works entered the public domain on 1 January 2024:

  • works by people who passed away in 1953 for countries with a copyright term of ‘life plus seventy years.’ These countries include the UK, Russia, most of the EU and South America.
  • works by people who passed away in 1973. This rule applies in countries with a copyright term of ‘life plus fifty years.’ These countries include New Zealand and most of Africa and Asia.
  • films and books published in 1928 for the United States.

Can a work leave the public domain?

Once a work enters the public domain, it generally cannot be reclaimed or ‘re-copyrighted.’ The public domain status signifies that the copyright protection has either expired or has been waived by the rights holder. Once in the public domain, the work is considered freely available for public use, and it cannot be retroactively brought back under copyright protection.

However, note that certain situations where a derivative work based on a public domain work may have its own copyright protection. This would apply to the new creative elements introduced in the derivative work, not the underlying public domain material.

Additionally, if a work is in the public domain in one jurisdiction but not in another due to differences in copyright laws, it could be subject to copyright protection in the jurisdiction where it is not in the public domain. This concept is known as ‘reversion’ or ‘recapture’ and occurs when a work that has entered the public domain in one jurisdiction is still under copyright protection in another.

In general, the principle remains that once a work is in the public domain, it cannot be reclaimed by the original rights holder or anyone else. The public domain status is considered permanent for that specific work in the jurisdiction where it has entered the public domain.

What does it mean for writers when a work enters the public domain?

The public domain offers writers a fertile ground for creativity, exploration, and collaboration. Furthermore, it liberates them from copyright restrictions, opening up new possibilities for storytelling, cultural enrichment and the continuous evolution of literature across generations. Here are examples of what opportunities literary works entering the public domain create for writers:

Freedom of inspiration

Writers can draw inspiration from and build upon works in the public domain without the constraints of copyright law. This can be especially beneficial for authors seeking to create new stories, reimagine classic tales or explore diverse narrative possibilities without worrying about legal limitations.

Access to source material

Writers gain access to a wealth of source material that can enrich their creative endeavours. Public domain works, whether literature, poetry, or historical documents, provide a vast repository of ideas and themes that writers can freely explore, adapt, and incorporate into their own writings.

Revitalising classics

Public domain status allows writers to breathe new life into classic works. They can create modern adaptations, sequels, or reinterpretations without facing copyright restrictions. This fosters a dynamic literary landscape where traditional stories can be reimagined and resonate with contemporary audiences.

Educational resources

Public domain works serve as valuable resources for writers engaged in educational and instructional writing. Writers can use, reference, and quote from these materials without navigating complex copyright permissions, facilitating the creation of educational content with ease.

Cultural contributions

By contributing to the public domain, writers contribute to society’s cultural heritage. When their works eventually enter the public domain, future generations can freely engage with and build upon these literary contributions, fostering a continuous exchange of ideas and creativity.

No copyright constraints

Writers exploring public domain works are not burdened by copyright constraints. They have the freedom to experiment with different styles, genres, and perspectives, knowing that their own creations will one day enter the public domain, providing a similar open space for future writers.

Collaborative creation

The public domain encourages a collaborative and communal approach to creativity. Writers can collaborate more freely, remixing each other’s work and collectively contributing to the literary landscape without requiring extensive legal agreements.

What can and cannot writers do with the public domain works?

Writers have significant freedom when working with public domain works. Still, it is important to understand the boundaries and legal considerations. Here is a breakdown of what writers can and cannot do with public domain works:

What can writers do with public domain books?

Adapt and modify

Public domain works can be adapted, modified and transformed into new creations. Writers can create derivative works, including retellings, modern adaptations or even combining elements from multiple public domain sources. Literary adaptations and modifications may include:

  • Writing a sequel or prequel: Writers can create a continuation of the story, exploring what happens to the characters after the events of the original work.
  • Updating the work: For instance, writers can update the language and setting to make the story more accessible to modern audiences. This may include transporting the story to a different period or modernising the setting. Alternatively, authors can consider how the themes and messages of the original work might resonate in a contemporary context.
  • Changing the medium: Moreover, writers may adapt the work into a different medium, such as turning a classic novel into a play or screenplay.
  • Reimagining characters: Authors can introduce new characters or provide alternative perspectives on existing ones. This may include exploring the untold stories or motivations of characters from the original work.
  • Combining multiple works: Writers can choose to merge elements from different public domain works to create a unique and original narrative. Furthermore, they can craft a crossover story involving characters from different works that have entered the public domain.
  • Exploring different endings: In addition, authors can deviate from the original plot and explore alternative endings or outcomes. For instance, they may imagine ‘what if’ scenarios and create a new narrative based on those possibilities.

Create educational materials

Writers can use public domain works in educational materials, including textbooks, articles, study guides, annotated editions and other instructional content. This is particularly beneficial for creating resources without complex copyright permissions.

  • Textbooks and study guides: Writers can incorporate public domain works into textbooks, providing students access to classic literature, historical documents or foundational texts without costly permissions or licensing fees.
  • Articles and research materials: Public domain works can be used as reference materials or foundational texts in articles and research papers. Writers can draw upon the wisdom of earlier works to enhance the quality and depth of their educational content.
  • Study guides and annotations: Writers have the flexibility to create study guides or annotated editions of public domain works, helping students understand complex themes, historical context, and literary techniques. Annotations can provide valuable insights without the constraints of copyright.
  • Open educational resources (OER): Public domain works play a crucial role in the development of OER. Writers can contribute to the creation of freely accessible educational resources, fostering a culture of sharing and collaboration in academia.
  • Multimedia educational content: Public domain images, audio recordings and videos can be integrated into multimedia educational content. Writers can enhance their materials by leveraging a wide range of public-domain media.
  • Language learning resources: Public domain works in different languages can be utilised for language learning materials. Writers can create exercises, translations or language proficiency assessments based on these works.

Create a public domain dedication

Writers can choose to dedicate their own works to the public domain, releasing them from copyright restrictions.

  • Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licences: Writers can release their works into the public domain by applying a CC0 licence, essentially waiving all copyright and related rights. This allows others to use, modify, and distribute the work freely.
  • Public domain dedications: Writers may explicitly dedicate their works to the public domain through statements of dedication. This ensures clarity regarding the creator’s intent to relinquish copyright control.
  • Encouraging collaboration: Public domain dedications promote collaboration by eliminating legal barriers. Other creators can freely build upon, remix, or adapt the work without seeking explicit permission, fostering a culture of creativity and innovation.
  • Contributing to the Commons: Writers contributing to the public domain contribute to the cultural commons. By making their works freely available, writers enrich the public domain and provide valuable resources for future generations.
  • Fostering accessibility: Public domain dedication enhances accessibility, ensuring that creative works are not unnecessarily restricted. This is especially important for creators who want their works to be widely accessible for educational or cultural purposes.
  • Preserving the public domain: Writers can actively contribute to preserving the public domain by dedicating their works. This helps maintain a vibrant space for shared knowledge, creativity and cultural exchange.

What writers cannot do with public domain books?

Falsely attribute: While writers can use public domain works, they cannot falsely attribute the work to themselves or claim authorship. Proper attribution to the original creator, if known, is still important.

Plagiarise: Even though public domain works can be freely used, writers must be cautious not to plagiarise. Plagiarism involves presenting someone else’s work as one’s own, and this ethical concern remains relevant even with public domain material.

Gain moral rights: In some jurisdictions, creators retain moral rights even after a work enters the public domain. Moral rights include the right to be identified as the author and object to derogatory work treatment. While these rights are not as strong as copyrights, writers should know them.

Violate trademarks: Public domain works may be associated with trademarks, particularly if they have become iconic. Writers should be cautious not to infringe on trademarks when using public domain material.

How can editing and proofreading services help when adapting public domain works?

When writers use public domain works as inspiration for their own writing, they may find it helpful to hire editing and proofreading services to ensure that their adaptations are high quality and free of errors. Furthermore, hiring an editing or proofreading service can provide writers and authors with the support and guidance they need to produce work that is both enjoyable and effective. These services include proofreading, copyediting, line editing and developmental editing. 

  • Proofreading services are typically the most basic type of editing and focus on correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. 
  • On the other hand, copyediting services are more in-depth and involve checking for consistency, style, and formatting issues. 
  • Line editing services focus on the aspects of writing, such as improving sentence structure and clarity. 
  • Last, developmental editing services help writers develop and refine their ideas, ensuring their writing is engaging and effective. 

Whether writers are looking to self-publish their adaptations or distribute them to a broader audience, editing and proofreading services can be invaluable, providing them with the tools they need to succeed.

What books entered the public domain in 2023?

A vast number of books became a the public domain books in 2023. Among these, several noteworthy works are worth celebrating, including a modernist masterpiece, poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, children’s verses featuring Winnie-the-Pooh and other characters, and some of the early works of Hemingway and Faulkner. Additionally, the copyright protection for Arthur Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes stories will also expire.

Some examples of books entering public domain in 2023.

Here are just a few highlights of books to enter the public domain in 2023:

What books entered the public domain in 2024?

Works entering the public domain in 2024, spanning various genres, delve into complex themes and have left a lasting impact on literature and culture. For instance, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a controversial exploration of love and sexuality. Orlando is a gender-bending and time-travelling novel, while All Quiet on the Western Front offers a poignant portrayal of the brutality of war.

Examples of books entering public domain in 2024
Some examples of books entering public domain in 2024.

Here are just a few selections of works that entered the public domain in 2024:

Where can you access public domain books?

Accessing public domain books is relatively easy, as many digital libraries and online platforms offer a wide range of public domain literature. Here are some popular resources where you can find and access public domain books:

Google Books: Google Books includes a vast collection of books, and many older works have entered the public domain. You can use the advanced search feature to filter results by copyright status. Visit:

HathiTrust Digital Library: HathiTrust is a partnership of academic and research institutions that provides access to a vast collection of digital content, including public domain books.

Internet Archive: The Internet Archive offers diverse digital content, including books, music and videos. The ‘Books’ section provides access to numerous public domain books.

Public domain works by Agatha Christie available at Internet Archive. Source: archive.org

LibriVox: LibriVox provides free audiobooks of public domain works. Volunteers worldwide record audiobooks of classic literature, making them accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

Public domain works by Edgar Rice Burroughs available at LibriVox. Source: librivox.org

Open Library: Open Library offers over 1.7 million free ebooks, including a significant number of public domain works. It provides an easy-to-use interface for borrowing digital books.

Project Gutenberg: Project Gutenberg is one of the oldest and largest digital libraries, offering a collection of over 60,000 free eBooks, including many classic works in the public domain. The books are available in multiple formats, including HTML, epub, Kindle and plain text.

Public domain books 2023 by A. A. Milne at Project Gutenberg
A. A. Milne’s public domain books added by 2023 available at Project Gutenberg. Source: gutenberg.org

Wikisource: Wikisource is a Wikimedia project that aims to host free, freely licensed and public domain source texts. It includes a growing collection of literary works in multiple languages.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, the public domain is an essential part of our cultural heritage, and its importance cannot be overstated. By promoting the sharing of knowledge, creativity and culture, the public domain fosters innovation and creativity while preserving our collective legacy of literature, art, music and other creative expressions.
As we look forward to the new public domain books becoming available in 2023 and 2024, we must also remember the importance of respecting copyright laws and avoiding copyright infringement. If you are a writer or author looking to publish your work, I am an experienced editor, working with non-fiction, academic and business books. If you need proofreading or editing of your text, contact me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount).

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Magda

I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).