How to Use Public Domain Content for Digital Books

online_searchOne of the easiest ways to get high quality content to turn into digital books for Kindle, iBooks, Nook or any other digital ebook store is to repurpose content that is free of copyright, or public domain works. By using content in the public domain, you can just use content that was created by someone else for your digital ebook. This guide will who you how to use public domain content for digital books.

Locating Copyright Free Works


The first thing you need to do is find the public domain works. While these suggestions are intended to be compliant with U.S. copyright law, you should always do your due diligence to ensure content is in the public domain.

1-copyright-gov-guideOlder Works

Generally speaking, any work that was published before 1923 is copyright free. Because of a law enacted in 1998, works created in 1923 will become public domain in 2019. In 2020, works created in 1924 will have their copyright expire and so forth.

There are certain circumstances where older works, published after 1923 might also be in the public domain.

For more information, review the U.S. Copyright Office guide here:


U.S. Government Works

One place to look is government websites. Any document published by the US government is free of copyright, but be aware that if documents were created under government contract with a 3rd party, they are protected by copyright.

You should also be aware that many logos and emblems, while not protected by copyright, are protected by other laws.

Still, if you do your homework right, you’ll find many government websites will have some top notch content up for grabs completely free.  From detailed reports on improving health to high resolution photos of the galaxy, from declassified cold war documents to environmental health reports, all of it is public domain. You just have to dig.

Look through the websites of various government institutions that are related to your field. You can also try searching with “” to do a search only through government websites.


Public Domain Archives

Another place you can look for public domain content are public domain archives. One of the most popular ones is Just make sure you do your own research to check that the content really is copyright free before you use it.


Second Hand Bookstores

One last place to look for public domain works is to try and locate truly unique and rare works that are no longer protected by copyright. These are public domain books that haven’t been digitized and aren’t being used by anyone else right now. If you can locate such a physical book and have it transcribed, you’ll literally be the only person on the internet with that book.

You can find these old physical books at local used and arcane bookstores, as well as some internet stores that specialize in older books.


Make Sure You’re Compliant with the Ebook Store Where You Plan to Publish


Before publishing your works on the Kindle, the iBookstore and the Nook store, make sure your work is compliant with their policies on public domain works.

At the time of this writing, you can publish on the Nook store without restrictions. Kindle stores allow public domain works, but will only give you 35% of the royalties instead of 70%. They also require that the works are either annotated, illustrated or translated to be considered. The iBookstore allows public domain works, but requires documented permission from the creators of the content.



How to Adapt Public Domain Works


Just publishing a piece of public domain work on these digital bookstores is not a great way to get buyers. For one, there’s a good chance someone else has published it already. Also, many of these books are outdated, don’t have photos or use an older or more formal version of English.

In order to launch a public domain work that’ll actually sell, you need to adapt it. By adapting it, you make the work your own. You add value to it, rather than just use what’s already there. You greatly increase your chances of success.

Here are a few different ways to adapt public domain works.

Add an Action Plan

For “how to” books, add an action plan.

For example, Chapter 1 might talk about the basics of how to train a dog. At the end of the chapter, add your own “action plan” that tells people exactly what to do. Do this for every chapter.

You can then rename the book to something more action-oriented. For example, instead of “Dog Training 101,” you could call your book “A Step by Step Plan for Dog Training.”


Add Images

Add relevant images to an older book. For example, if the book is talking about dog training, hire an artist to draw out all the various tricks and positions you want to teach your dog.

There are a lot of different ways you can get images. You can use stock images. You can hire an artist. You can even do it yourself.


Add Step by Step Photos

At least once every chapter, add “step by step” photos.

You know those safety cards behind every airplane seat? Remember how every instruction is illustrated with cartoons, step by step?

Do something similar. If you’re publishing a fishing book, make an image that visually shows how to bait a hook.


Add Sidebars

You can add a lot of value to a book just by adding sidebars. A sidebar could include miscellaneous tips on the side, warning labels, references or just about any way you can think of to help facilitate the book’s content.

One great example of this is the “For Dummies” book series. They make ample use of sidebars to give warnings, extra tips, background information and a whole host of other kinds of information.

You could just add these sidebars to public domain works and make the work your own.


Make Dry Text Fun to Read

A lot of public domain works have great ideas and great content, but sound very dry. You can make it a lot better just by rewriting the text in an easier to read, more fun way.

Sometimes all you really need to do is rewrite old English to modern English. At other times, you might want to add in your own brand of personality.

If you don’t want to do this all yourself, you can outsource it quite inexpensively.



Introducing a popular work in another language can be a great way to bring new life to a public domain work. By publishing in different languages you can reach different audiences.


Publishing Your Book


Once you’ve found the public domain work, you’ve checked to make sure it’s compliant with the store you want to release it on and you’ve added value by making your own adaptation, the last step is to go ahead and publish it.

Rename the book or give the book a new spin. For example, instead of “Think and Grow Rich,” a popular wealth building book that’s now in the public domain, you might call your derivative work “Think and Grow Rich: The Updated Action Pack.”

Then just package your book, upload it and you’re done!