The On-Line Books Page, edited by John Mark Ockerbloom, and "A Celebration of Women Writers", edited by Mary Mark Ockerbloom, link to complete, freely readable editions of online books by men and women. Many of these have been put online by volunteers. It's not difficult for one person to transcribe and proofread the text of their favorite book, and once one person has done this, the book becomes available to millions of Internet readers.
Before a book can be legally put online, its copyright status must be checked. Either
(1) the book must no longer be copyrighted, or
(2) creation of this free on-line edition must be approved by the legal copyright holder.
In the United States, any work published before 1923 is no longer copyrighted. It is referred to as having entered the public domain, and it can be reproduced by anyone who wishes to do so. (In other countries, copyright usually lasts at least 50 years after the author's death, but laws vary.) So the simplest thing to do is to look for books published before (not including) 1923.
Note that translations, revised texts, and other derivative works can get a new copyright from the date of their creation. Also, different parts of a book may be subject to different copyrights. A set of illustrations added to a later edition of a book may be copyrighted separately at a later date than the text of the original book. Their copyright may even be owned separately, by the illustrator or his/her heirs or assigns, rather than by the author of the text.
If you are trying to determine whether a book is still copyrighted, the first thing to do is to look at its copyright information (usually on the back of the title page) to see what copyrights are claimed. Works written after 1977, or that were not published in the United States, may be copyrighted even if there is no copyright notice in the book. To be on the safe side, try to find books that were actually published before 1923; or contact us if you aren't sure of how to interpret the copyright notice.
A book may be reprinted without being recopyrighted. If the back of the title page indicates, for example, "Copyright 1917; First edition printed 1917, Second edition printed 1924" then the book is in the public domain, even if you are working from the second edition. However, a book that stated "Copyright 1917, 1924" would presumably NOT be usable; you would have to find a 1917 edition instead, to ensure that any still-copyrighted changes made in the 1924 edition were not included in your on-line edition. It might also be that the material in the book was independently published (perhaps in magazine form) before the book was published; in that case "Copyright 1917, 1924" might mean that some of the material in the book was copyrighted on its first publication in 1917, while the rest was copyrighted later on, in 1924. Here again, while the 1917 material would be in the public domain, any later material would not be.
Normally, each year, the copyrights for another year's worth of books would expire, and the books would enter the public domain. However, due to the COPYRIGHT EXTENSION ACT of October 1998 copyright has been extended for another 20 years. This means that no further works will enter the public domain for that period of time. Books that would normally have entered the public domain as of January 1, 1999, will not do so. This is a serious set-back for all on-line book and digital library projects. See pages by Dennis Karjala and Dennis McCarthy for more information.
For general information on copyrights and intellectual property, see "Intellectual Property Online: Patent, Trademark, Copyright" Archive", a page which has many useful links on the subject. In addition, the Harry Ransom Center for Humanities Research at the Univ of Texas, maintains a database of writers and dates called WATCH (Writers and Their Copyright Holders) which can be searched for information relevant to copyright status.
In addition to books from before 1923, there are some books whose copyrights fell into the public domain because the authors did not renew them. The rules for determining which books need renewals, and the procedures for checking renewals, can be complex. See this guide from The Online Books Page for more details.
In any case, once you find a text you want to contribute, tell us about it by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org , giving the author, title, and your name. We'll annotate the On-line Books Page's list of works in progress, so that other people know someone's working on it. We'll indicate who wants to do what by listing your contact address (name and email) next to that title. (If you'd prefer not to have this information listed, just let us know.)
If you already have space on a Web, Gopher, or FTP site, you can always put a copy up on your own site, and tell us how to link to it. We can then include its URL in the Celebration of Women Writers and the On-Line Books Page.
Or, you can submit the text to one of many book archives on the Net. The Celebration of Women Writers is only one of the archives that is looking for texts. (If your book isn't suitable for our site, we can help you find a more suitable archive.) Then we'll link to the copy in that archive. To see examples of some of the texts and archives out there, see the On-Line Books Page.
That's all there is to it. Please write us if you have any questions, or if you would like to supply a text for the On-Line Books Page or the Celebration of Women Writers.