Finding a Digital Public Domain Book

elmira carnegie 2
DRM-Free LabelAn avid Public Library user asked me if there was some way to access the book “Daddy Long Legs” by Jean Webster without having to submit to the Library’s Overdrive system.  My friend believes this book was published around 1912, which places it squarely in the Public Domain.

(This is not to single out any particular library… my understanding is that “Public Libraries” all seem to have fallen into the thrall of Overdrive… I’ll blog about why people might want to avoid the odious Overdrive and DRM later.)

Any number of “free websites” like Public Bookshelf allow you to read online so they can serve you ads:

Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster cover (1912)For myself, I prefer to go the free-as-in-freedom route.  The first place to look for any Public Domain digital book is online at the awesome Project Gutenberg

PG has been digitizing books since the 1970’s, so they have a very good selection.  Sure enough, PG does have “Daddy Long-Legs” which you can:

(1) read online, or

(2) download

  • in the Kindle proprietary format or
  • in the free eBook standard ePub, which can be read with any ePub reader on any digital device, or
  • in Plain Text.

Plain Text can be read in your computer’s text reader (Notepad or Geddit etc.)

If you don’t know if you have an ePub Reader, the one everyone can use is FBReader, the Free and Gratis ePub reader I know will work on windows, mac, GNU/linux, tablets/phones etc  Download it free/gratis at  (I am pretty sure this is the reader that comes native with the Calibre eBook conversion software.]

Mary Pickford“Daddy Long Legs” is a famous classic, so you can also download it:

  1. as a digital audio book free/gratis from Librevox []
  2. where it is actually stored on Internet Archive  []
  3. or you can listen to the whole Librivox ebook on YouTube
  4. If you prefer movies, you can watch Mary Pickford in the 1919 Public Domain movie on YouTube
  5. which you can also download from Internet Archive

[There are also what I presume to be copyright encumbered film versions, like the Fred Astaire musical version:
and the 1970s animated version:
Either of these would be illegal to copy if they are still in copyright… they may or may not be; but it would take research to find out for sure, so until you know either way,it is always safest to assume the worst.]

If you are looking for digital Public Domain books, the best place to get them is not from the Public Library.  The problem is that even Public Domain books that library patrons acquire through Overdrive come  encumbered with DRM and/or  TOS requirements.

against DRM (cc by Nina Paley)In these days of copyright insanity, we at least ought to be able to access unencumbered Public Domain work.  Why should some faceless corporate entity have the right to tell us what we can or can’t do with works in the Public Domain… because the Public Domain belongs to the public– and that’s you and me.

For future reference, when you’re looking for Public Domain material, always check the free-as-in-freedom & gratis Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg and Librivox, because they very often have them.  (And, if you’ve a little extra time on your hands, these wonderful public service organizations are always in the market for volunteers.)

waterloo library


5 thoughts on “Finding a Digital Public Domain Book

  1. Oh, I totally forgot to mention – if you’re looking for a quality EPUB reader, one of the better options is one built into a browser. Everybody has a browser, after all, and the quality of HTML5/CSS3/SVG1.1 support is usually top-notch… *MUCH* better than in your average standalone EPUB reader. In fact, even the better standalone EPUB readers basically use browsers internally. (Calibre, for example, doesn’t use FBReader, it uses its own EPUB viewer that’s based on WebKit (ie, basically Chromium/Chrome)).

    Firefox has Lucifox, and Chromium/Chrome has Readium. Both are plenty good enough for reading, and both even offer limited library management if you want it (if you want full library management, there’s always Calibre). Both are free software – Lucifox is GPL3, Readium is BSD-licenced. The interesting thing about Readium is that it’s actually the reference implementation used by the IDPF (the people who write the EPUB specification) to show full EPUB 3 support.

  2. I’m so pleased to see Gutenberg Canada getting a mention. It’s way smaller than Gutenberg Project actual, and in *DIRE* need of cleanup and organization (and it’s ugly as sin to look at), but it has things that are simply not available on Gutenberg actual because that site uses US copyright law… which is much nastier than Canadian copyright law. Gutenberg Canada actually has stuff that wouldn’t be allowed on Gutenberg actual, plus a lot of specifically Canadian stuff.

    The biggest complaint I have about most public domain ebooks is that they’re of such poor quality. Both the Gutenberg Project and Gutenberg Canada insist on plain text versions… which is fine for simple books, but pretty much pointless for texts with tables, diagrams, figures, or equations. And both focus on simply reproducing the text, with no concern whatsoever for the semantics (for example, they mark all italics up with [i] (or worse, just uppercase), whether they’re just italics for display purposes or for actual emphasis), which makes them hard to use for people who have accessibility issues (people who need to use a screen reader, for example).

    For years, one of my hobbies has been taking public domain works and making *quality* ebooks out of them – and by quality I don’t just mean they look good (I try to make them look as much like the originals as practical), I mean they are coded with semantic markup technologies, so they are accessible even to readers who can’t read plain text without assistance. I actually have *dozens* of books done, but the vast majority are still under copyright. (Originally I just did this for myself, to create nice digital editions for physical books I own that are falling apart.) One of my resolutions this year was to get a little more organized about that, to focus on public domain texts, and to actually publish them online for others to use too, so I actually put together a simple site listing them at – there are only three books there so far (though I’ll probably finish Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” this week), but as I go through all my old stuff, pick out the public domain works, and update them, it should expand quite a bit.

    Of course, every ebook I make is released back into the public domain – DRM-free – even including anything I added (like cover images, for example).

    The focus is on philosophical and scientific texts, and maybe I’ll do some science fiction and mystery works, too… basically anything that catches my fancy, I suppose (it is a hobby after all). I suppose they’re rather niche interests, but they’re my interests, so, so it goes. But if there’s anything you’re really hankering for – or anything you know someone else is really hankering for – feel free to mention it to me; I might put it on the list. (I would suppose the easiest way for you to get in touch with me is via Status.Net/GNU Social – I’m @indi on – but there’s also a contact page on the site that I’m probably going to add a contact/request form to… someday.)

    • As a Canadian myself I am quite interested in Project Gutenberg Canada, and if I ever get free time (not in the forseeable future, anyway) that’s where I would be likely to volunteer my help.

      Having just learned Australia has followed England into being bullied to up their copyright terms from Life +50 to Life +70 I am frankly amazed (and terribly pleased) that Canada has not. Perhaps the nearly universal opposition to same in our Copyright Consultation made some little impact after all.

      Still, in my online efforts to plug the Public Domain and fight against copyfraud, I don’t tag things I know are PD in Canada but bnot elsewhere as “Public Domain” because first and foremost I don’t want anyone to find themselves DMCAed, fined, or winding up in jail (or worse) through the brutal application of today’s crazy copyright law.

      I thoroughly agree with your policy of re-releasing improved Public Domain works back into the Public Domain. I do that too, although so far I’ve not remade any eBooks, just art), and I guess what surprises me the most is how many people don’t.

      • > Perhaps the nearly universal opposition to same in our Copyright Consultation made some little impact after all.

        I really wish I could believe that, but I can’t help but feel that the reason the corporations and their crony politicians have gone quiet on this fight is because they know they’ve already won. All they need to do is sit back and wait for TPP, which seems inevitable and unchallengeable at this point. They couldn’t win in public debate, but we can’t win when they’re playing games with secret treaties.

  3. I don’t know what Calibre has, but it is not FBReader. It has a ton of features that FBReader is missing.

    FYI, it appears that the Copyright boys are at it again. I’ll be posting something on my blog about it when I have a few more details.


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