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If there is a copyrighted book that I want to be freely available (for whatever reason), is it possible through legal means to make it available to everyone? When I say freely available I mean to publish an ebook that is free or a website that has the whole book online. Would it involve contacting the publisher (if the author is deceased) or author and making some sort of deal? If known what would such a deal potentially entail (one time payment, multiple payments based on usage, or some other criteria)? I live in the US.

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If you own the copyright (because you wrote the book), you can do whatever you want with it. If someone else has the copyright, you have to get their permission to do what you propose. That could be the author, the author's estate, or some other party. It then depends on what the interest of the rights-holder is: they could say "No way!", "Sure, for a payment of $100,000", "At $1 per copy, here is how you must keep track of copies", "Okay, as long as you include this notice that prevents further re-distribution" or "Huh, I never thought of that. Sure, I grant you complete license to do whatever you want". A publisher is relevant only when the publisher requires a transfer of copyright to the publishing company, or if the rights-holder has granted them a certain type of license (e.g. an exclusive license). If the author has granted someone else an exclusive perpetual right to distribute, then they cannot also grant you a license to distribute for free. That is really the author's problem, though, since the publisher doesn't hold the copyright so can't sue you, instead the publisher would sue the author for breach of contract.

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You would have to contact the copyright owner, and negotiate a contract with them. That could be complicated if they already have an agreement with someone else.

There are expirations for copyrights, but you have not mentioned what you would propose to distribute.

Note that works may be covered by more than one copyright, in more than one country, and for some works, the countries can vary widely in their copyright protections.

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You might want to consider the library system approach. Check out this article. Increasing number of books are loaned out in e-book format. I think in a sense it's a legal way to make a book freely available to the public.

However, note that:

  1. you are NOT purchasing a copy of a book, instead you are purchasing license to access the content, so first-sale doctrine of copyright law is not applicable. Namely, they might grant you one year e-loaning right, or might charge you licence fee again for every 100 copies loaned.

    The first sale doctrine, codified at 17 U.S.C. § 109, provides that an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of that particular copy, notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner. The right to distribute ends, however, once the owner has sold that particular copy.

  2. Whether this practice is doing publishers good or harm is still debatable.
  3. To self-publishers, selling to libraries might present a economical and effective marketing opportunity. In other words, if you are considering distributing self-published copyrighted books, and you are running a digital library (I guess you will need state permit or something to do so), it can be a win-win to both parties.

P.S. I am NOT attorney. This post is NOT legal advice.

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    Here, "freely" has to mean "at no cost to the reader", but not free in the sense "without restriction". Library copies license a specific number of copies and (usually) require a card; and your library has to decide to pay for this license. I don't understand why you think you'd need a state permit.
    – user6726
    Jul 8 '17 at 20:26
  • @user6726, I agree that if continuous payment is needed, it won't satisfy "freely" requirement. But I believe this approach is still possible because self-published authors might be willing to grant unlimited distribution to library e-book loaning program as the author's marketing strategy. What I want to say is: there's possibility to make it "freely" available to the reader. As for the state permit, sorry for confusion. I referred to the permit/certificate to open a digital library (as a non-profit organization?)
    – Ryan L
    Jul 8 '17 at 21:00

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