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Ethics and the Public Domain

Every once and a while, I receive an e-mail or read a comment somewhere from someone who has a problem with using Public Domain works because they feel like they’re taking advantage of the original author or artist. They feel guilty over claiming ownership over something that someone else created. I’ve written about this some before, but I thought now might be a good time to go into more detail about this “ethics” dilemma.

First of all, you need to understand that one of the primary reasons the Public Domain even exists is so that works that were created in the past can serve as catalysts for new works in the future. An example of this is clearly evident with Disney’s use of Grimm’s Fairy Tales as the foundation for some of today’s best-loved Disney classics, such as Snow White and Cinderella (although Disney has seemed to have forgotten their own beginnings and has fought tooth-and-nail to keep Mickey Mouse and others OUT of the Public Domain). This concept provides the foundation for my own passion for the Public Domain…to take the successes from the past, add fresh insights and technology to create hybrid products for a new generation.

Where this all gets murky, however, is when it comes to claiming ownership for something not originally produced by you. Is it okay to put your name down as the author of a work that was written by someone else, but is in the Public Domain? Legally, you can do it. If a work is in the Public Domain, you can do whatever you want with it. However, in order to claim any kind of copyright, you have to apply what the law defines as minimal creativity…you have to change it. Once a work falls into the Public Domain, it can’t be re-copyrighted as-is, although some would lead you to believe otherwise (including the Smithsonian Institute). So “technically” you could claim authorship, but “ethically” I wouldn’t recommend it.

When we think of “Public Domain,” we often automatically assume that we’re talking about OLD content, but that’s not always the case. Most content produced by the United States government is in the Public Domain and they’re produce a LOT of current content. But I’ve also noticed a growing trend among certain, current-day content producers to release their works into the Public Domain. There has been some debate over whether this is a stupid thing for them to do, or if it is actually a brilliant way for them to spread their words or images in an even more viral way. I’ve found a number of sites where this is being done, and, honestly, I was shocked at some of what was being released into the Public Domain because it’s great content! (NO, I’m not going to tell you WHICH sites I found…sorry).

The biggest question that seems to come up in the discussions about these sites is whether someone else will rip-off the content and claim it as their own. I think it’s possible that will happen some…even with the authors asking for attribution for their work. But, in all honesty, I admire them for what they’ve done. Their actions have even led me to consider releasing some of my own writings and images into the Public Domain. We’ll see. Of course, once they’re in the Public Domain, they’re there…you can’t “take’em back!”

Last year, I was working on a catalog project for a publisher and he sent me a stack of books that were written by an author for whom this catalog was being produced. This author is the pastor of a church in New York and also a natural health practitioner. The publisher had commented to me on how prolific this author was when it came to writing, but I was skeptical. No one can write six or eight books in the space of a few months, especially books on nutrition and homeopathic care. I read the introductions to several of the books and the author shared how the books came out of his own experiences and expertise, and that they were “given” to him through the inspiration of God. Being the researcher that I am (I’m pretty good, especially with all things Public Domain), I decided to test a hunch. I began to research the content of the books to see if they were from the Public Domain, and I made some interesting discoveries.

First of all, at least two of the books were directly from the Public Domain, having been written before 1923. They were not written by him, but were wholesale copies of the original works except for the Introduction. But then, what I discovered next really bothered me…a few of the books “inspired by God” were direct rip-offs of current, copyrighted materials. This person flat-out violated the copyrights of others and claimed the works as his own. I was extremely upset by this and called the publisher, who later confronted the pastor about this when he refused to pay for all the work that was done on his newest book and catalog. This is a clear-cut example of what I would consider ethically and morally wrong…especially for the copyrighted work, but even for the Public Domain works as well. I’m sure God isn’t “inspiring” anyone to lie. So what is the answer?

I mentioned earlier that I view products created from Public Domain works as hybrids, and as such, there are some really cool and easy ways to create them in an ethically acceptable way. One great example of a person using Public Domain works in a hybrid way is Joe Vitale. Joe has taken a number of Public Domain works, like “At Your Command” by Neville Goddard, and added some of his own thoughts and then republished the book as written by Joe Vitale and Neville Goddard. This strategy is a smart one, partly because it is easier to start a project working with existing content rather than start from nothing, but also for associated name recognition. Joe’s name is now connected with Neville’s and it adds a measure of credibility to Joe (not that Joe needs more credibility…he is an expert marketer in his own right).

ANYONE can take an existing book, update the language, add your own thoughts, some takeaway points, a study guide…whatever…and then publish the new, hybrid work under your name and the original author’s name. This approach also demonstrates a level of integrity on your part to honor the original inspiration given to the author. Of course, you can also use the same content with other mediums as well, such as study course, audios and video series.

Another approach you can use to give credit to the original source when creating a new product from a Public Domain work is to include a line of attribution. Include a sentence on the copyright page or in the Appendix, such as: “This new work is based on the original work titled, ‘At Your Command’ by Neville Goddard.” That way, you’re still giving credit where credit is due. A third option is to just leave the attribution as it is, to the original author. In other words, update and re-publish the work using the author’s name. I’m sure you’ve seen a number of updated versions of Wallace Wattles’ classic, “The Science of Getting Rich.” That way, the ethics dilemma is a total non-issue. Lastly, you could just publish or use the content without any reference to ownership. I’ve used this approach a few times, such as with the case study examples I produced for “The Report Factory.” One was based on a Public Domain book and the other, content from a government website. So I just released the e-books with the content and NO listed author. This method is a little more “gray area” for some, but I personally don’t have a problem with it. I’m not saying I wrote it, but I’m also not divulging who did. That way, the source for the content is somewhat protected so that every other yahoo in the world doesn’t try to rip it off.

So what about you and this question of ethics? My recommendation is to follow what feels right to you, but try to give honor where it’s due. It can be in a minimal way, or even not at all. But I would strongly recommend against claiming full authorship or artistry for works you didn’t create. I can’t imagine how building a business on lies would ever succeed in the end. Public Domain content IS free to use, but integrity and honor go a LONG way to building a successful business.

7 Responses to “Ethics and the Public Domain”

  • John Bradley:

    Hi Tony,

    Nice article. Looks like you covered all angles of the public domain.


  • Al:

    Hey Tony,

    Great comments and thoughts. Thanks a lot for sharing your opinion on this. It’s great to see a good, balanced, and authoritative stance on it.

    How about this attribution:

    Published: Year, by XXXXX (name or website)
    Or maybe Re-published: Year, by XXXX (name or website)

    Any thoughts or opinions on this one? I realize your are not attributing to the original author, but you’re also not claiming yourself as the copyright holder.

    I’ve used this attribution, in the past, based on the comments I received from another marketer’s suggestions, whom I’ve read a few things about publishing public domain content.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and your time.
    All the best,

  • Hi Tony,
    Thanks for opening this discussion about ethics. As you say, the way people handle the use of public domain works is all over the place.

    I’ve published a couple of printed PD books, as well as a few PD eBooks. In all cases, I credited the original creators, even when I had added extensive new information.

    On another PD book I’m reworking now, I’ll add my name as the “contributing editor”.

    As for claiming copyright, I haven’t done that when all I did was add a brief introduction or a new cover image to a PD work. But where I did extensive revising/rewriting of another PD book, I felt justified in copyright protecting my new work (even though I still credited the original source).

    Keep up the good work! I’m loving the public domain newspaper and magazine book you just wrote; finding all kinds of great stuff in my favorite niches.

    John R. Cumbow
    Out-of-print and hard-to-find books and
    information for glass artists and collectors

  • Lori:

    Thank you for clarifying the use of public domain information. You always have great tips and content to read. One day I might actually jump in and do something with all the great public domain content that is out there.

  • Larry:

    Boy am I glad you wrote this article. I’m ready to release a reworked version of a classic marketing book and I was in a bit of a quandary over how to attribute the authorship. You see, I’ve completely rewritten the work, taking out “old” language and updating everything in it. But in my mind it still is not “mine.”

    Since the original author is well-known, I was going to use his and my name as co-authors. But I was still a bit uneasy about whether this was okay.

    After reading this article I have another confirmation that making myself a co-author is indeed okay and will continue to use this technique with other public domain material if it has an author already.

    I also appreciate the advice of leaving some work with no author as in government content. I think this is simply taking the “high road” and that too is what I will do.

    Thanks for giving me this valuable advice and keeping my conscience clear.

  • Tony,

    An excellent article.

    Principles, morals and ethics are, along with skill and ability, essential for true success.

    Thank you,


  • Gary:

    I’m rather new to public domain work. I landed on your page looking for Neville Goddard. Your article has opened my eyes to a way of using public domain that is very refreshing.


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