Q. If I republish a public domain work, can I copyright the new version?
A. No, not unless you add new original material. Let me explain.
Public domain works are anything NOT protected by copyright. Such works may be used freely by anyone without permission from the author. The numerous changes Congress has made to the term of copyright duration, however, have made it difficult to determine the copyright status of a work. There are different standards for literary works, photographs, sound recordings, and foreign works. In sum, the rules — once simple — have become complex to a ludicrous degree. (I have written about this in previous articles.)
After a book (or any copyrighted work, such as music, or art) is in the public domain, it cannot be pulled back into copyright status by republication. You may, however, copy, translate, republish it, even add new material to create new works. The new work would become a work derived from the original.
A derivative work is a work based on one or more already existing, underlying works. Common examples are a writing a screenplay based on a novel, recording an audio version of the novel, or translating the novel into another language. A work that has fallen into the public domain also is an underlying “work” from which derivative works can be created.
The new material you add is subject to copyright, provided that additional material, standing on its own is an expression of an original idea or thought, not a minor revision or change. The copyright in a derivative work covers only the additions, changes, or other new material appearing for the first time in the work, but the copyright in the derivative work will not extend to the public domain material, and the use of the public domain material in a derivative work remains free for anyone else to use.
And be careful: as noted, you can copy the original public domain material the derivative work is based on, but not any new material someone else has added. For example, if someone else wrote a screenplay based upon Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, you could copy the novel but not the new dialog and scenes. The new material would be under that person’s copyright.
This question is especially timely because under the terms of the “Sonny Bono” copyright legislation, enacted in 1998, many wonderful books originally published in 1923 fell into the public domain on January 1, 2019. Wikipedia’s editors have compiled a very nice list of books published in 1923 at https://bit.ly/2VqUhFg. These books now are are in the public domain:
• Willa Cather – A Lost Lady
• Agatha Christie – The Murder on the Links
• Joseph Conrad – The Rover
• Kahlil Gibran – The Prophet
• Ernest Hemingway – Three Stories and Ten Poems
• Hermann Hesse – Demian (first English-language edition)
• Aldous Huxley – Antic Hay
• D. H. Lawrence
• The Fox, The Captain’s Doll, The Ladybird: Three Novellas
• Katherine Mansfield – The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories (short stories, published posthumously)
• Liam O’Flaherty – Thy Neighbour’s Wife
• Marcel Proust – The Prisoner
• Dorothy L. Sayers – Whose Body?
• Alexei Tolstoy – Aelita
• Jules Verne (died 1905) (first English-language editions)
• The Castaways of the Flag
• The Lighthouse at the End of the World (largely attributed to Michel Verne)
• H. G. Wells – Men Like Gods
• Edith Wharton – A Son at the Front
• William Carlos Williams – The Great American Novel
• MP. G. Wodehouse
• The Inimitable Jeeves
• Leave It to Psmith
• Virginia Woolf – “Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street”
• Also Works by Jane Austen, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, Winston Churchill, G.K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Zane Grey, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.