I am building an eBook reading service (paid) and I aim to distribute free classics available on Gutenberg Project. (at least for the start)

I have gone through all Gutenberg terms which allows me to do almost anything, but Gutenberg being limited to the US, it doesn't say much beyond that.

I just came to know that Gutenberg is banned in Germany, because of a lawsuit arising out of the situation that copyright expiry differs between Germany and the US (where Gutenberg is located).

My questions are:

Does this mean I cannot sell any books in Germany? Are there exceptions? (By selling I do not mean to sell one book for €xx - it is rather unlimited books per month sort of, but it is no different from selling)

  • Is there a central place to know how many years old books could be safe to publish, in every country?

  • Is there another thing that I am completely overlooking (beyond number of years passed since published / author died)?

  • If there is a safer, more copyright-free + generic source than Gutenberg to find such books?

  • If at all infringement occurs, what sort of difficulties could arise for me?

1 Answer 1


It is not correct to say that "Gutenberg is banned in Germany". A German court ruled that Project Gutenberg (US) could not provide copies of 18 works to addresses in Germany. PGLF (the foundation that runs Project Gutenberg) decided to block all access from Germany, because similar claims might be made about other works, leading to added legal expense in Germany. PGLF is said to be appealing the German Court's decision.

Many works in the PG collection are clearly out of copyright in Germany, under German law. Providing those works would not infringe German copyright. As long as the PG license is complied with (and it is quite permissive) I see no legal problem with such works, but anyone planning to start a business or service reproducing such works would be wise to consult a lawyer with knowledge of copyright law in that person's country.

Note that there are PG affiliates in several countries, including Germany and Australia, that operate under their own local copyright rules, and are run separately, and have different collections of works.

  • it's a little more complicated: OLG Frankfurt (aM) did affirm the LG Frankfurt (aM) ruling here. PArt of the first ruling was, that PG had to disclose who did download it, but the German publisher said, that what they discovered since then would suffice their requests. PG asked for special permission to appeal in front of the BGH, which is still pending. Meanwhile, for similar reasons, in June 2020, Italy ordered PG Blocked
    – Trish
    Dec 11, 2020 at 16:08
  • Link to where the resulting case shall appear (German): dejure.org/dienste/vernetzung/…
    – Trish
    Dec 11, 2020 at 16:11
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    @Nirav Bhatt My understanding is that if you retain the PG header, you must offer under the PG license, which means permitting others to reuse. If the PG hjeader is removed, you may use any license at all, but must not mention PG or use its trademarks. I was for a whjile a regular volunteer for PG, digitizing works. Dec 11, 2020 at 21:58
  • @DavidSiegel sorry I accidentally deleted my comment, but I meant to ask two things, one of which you already answered. Many works is still under some gray area, and despite being popular (precisely because of it), I seem to be unable to use it. Dec 11, 2020 at 22:00
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    @Nirav Bhatt That sentence does not mean the work may not be used, jsut that you must check. I think that Alice is free of copyright everywhere in the world, for example. If that text is absent, you still must check. I don't know why it is absent from some ebooks -- perhaps an older form of the header did not use the text. But one still must check. Dec 11, 2020 at 22:15

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