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Just for fun, I want to include a bookshelf in my game with a real book (or few) that you can actually read.

Would I run into any legal trouble if I included an out of print book in the public domain, such as Pride and Prejudice or Alice in Wonderland?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This should probably be moved to law.stackexchange. I'm not an expert by any means, but I think the answers so far are oversimplified; for instance, they ignore moral rights, which exist separately from copyright in some jurisdictions. Any legal answer will necessarily be specific to a particular country. \$\endgroup\$ – David Aug 6 '15 at 21:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Moral rights (sometimes called "authors rights") are rights retained by the author of a work, even if they no longer hold the copyright. They include the right of attribution (or of not being attributed, at the author's discretion), and the right to ensure the integrity of the work. More details on Wikipedia \$\endgroup\$ – Trevor Powell Aug 7 '15 at 0:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TrevorPowell Wouldn't an in-game book necessarily be attributed if you're including the full content of it, given that the full content should include both title and author name (or lack thereof if the author chose not to include their name, i.e. right to not be attributed)? \$\endgroup\$ – JAB Aug 7 '15 at 15:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ashes999 What if he plans to make a mandatory mini-game where the player is required to read the entire book and pass a quiz in order to progress in the main story? Didn't think of that, did you? \$\endgroup\$ – aebabis Aug 7 '15 at 19:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ashes999 Haha. It's just for fun really. I could include the first page, but why not the whole book? The full text of P&P is 700kB, and that's just uncompressed. I don't expect anyone to read it, but it might get a smile. \$\endgroup\$ – Entity Aug 7 '15 at 20:07
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Getting legal advice on GameDev.StackExchange is not a great idea.

Having said that, if a work is truly in the public domain, you can do whatever you want with it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you saying it's not true that he can include Alice in Wonderland, or it's not true he can do what he wants with public domain stuff? Because my answer, if you read it carefully, does not say he can definitely use Alice in Wonderland. \$\endgroup\$ – Almo Aug 7 '15 at 12:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the first line disclaimer is irrelevant, especially given that Law SE exists. Can we delete it? \$\endgroup\$ – Anko Aug 7 '15 at 13:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Anko, maybe not delete it, but change it to "gamedev.stackexchange"? \$\endgroup\$ – Broots Waymb Aug 7 '15 at 13:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Anko, Law.SE will tell you that they don't give legal advice either. \$\endgroup\$ – Max Aug 7 '15 at 20:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is how we do it on StackExchange. We tell people that it's not a good idea to get legal advice here, because it's not legal advice. It's just some random person on the internet giving an answer. Trusting you won't get sued because of what some random person on the internet says isn't smart. But we know that most of these people won't really consult a lawyer. So we give our best answer anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – Almo Aug 10 '15 at 12:47
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Yes and no. "Public domain" does mean that, by definition, you can do whatever you like with that creative property.

However there's an important caveat here. What's public domain is the underlying story, not every specific creative work based on that story. So, like, you could have a book titled Alice in Wonderland, but its cover can't be Disney's Alice in Wonderland.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The caveat is true, but that still means that it's just a pure "Yes." as you can still use the cover that is a part of the work. Obviously you can't use the cover of a different work that's not in public domain, but that's not the question. \$\endgroup\$ – David Mulder Aug 7 '15 at 18:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes it's obvious that you can't use some other non-public domain work, but it's not obvious when a related work isn't public domain. This isn't just a theoretical issue; I once had to explain to someone why, although Thor is an ancient a mythological figure, they can't put him in their game as a blond clean-shaven dude. \$\endgroup\$ – jhocking Aug 9 '15 at 0:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I never tried to suggest that determining what is and what is not in public domain is an easy task, all I critigued was the "and no" part as an answer to a question that is an explicit "yes", it's a "yes, but be careful", not a "yes and no". And regarding Thor, considering he was already painted as a blond clean-shaven dude in 1872 and author died in 1896 I think you should actually get away with that (though you have to be careful what else you include). \$\endgroup\$ – David Mulder Aug 9 '15 at 0:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ "What's public domain is the underlying story" That doesn't make sense. Copyright applies to the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves: there is no "underlying story"; there is only the words. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is in the public domain. Disney's Alice in Wonderland is a separate work, which is still in copyright. That copyright covers the dialogue, images and so on, but that's irrelevant to including the text of Carroll's novel in the game. \$\endgroup\$ – David Richerby Aug 9 '15 at 22:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ By "underlying story" I meant Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (ie. the story that Disney's version was based on.) You are correct though that copyright doesn't apply to the ephemeral idea of Alice in Wonderland, and that is another valid interpretation of the phrase "underlying story". ugh law is so much semantics \$\endgroup\$ – jhocking Aug 11 '15 at 13:38
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Watch for different copyright terms in different countries. Just because a book's copyright has expired in your country does not mean it has expired in all countries in which you plan to distribute the game. Though the Berne Convention sets a minimum copyright term of 50 years after the death of the author, countries are free to set a longer copyright term. If you have questions unanswered by Wikisource's copyright resources, ask on Law Stack Exchange.

Other issues that you may run into are that the books may make the game bigger to download and may affect your game's rating from ESRB or foreign counterparts.

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Public domain content is by definition not copyrighted (anymore), so it is perfectly acceptable to use that. However, there are some things to keep in mind:

  • Copyright terms are not universal. What is public domain in one country might not be public domain in another. You should confirm the copyright durations / public domain status of the material in your country and all countries you plan to sell the game in.
  • Some countries have non-copyright copyright-like restrictions. Some European countries have a concept of "moral rights" on top of copyright. These might be more restrictive and last longer. Again, this is going to vary heavily by locale, and you should verify the law in all locales you plan to sell this game.
  • Translations are usually copyrightable. In most of the world that I am aware of, translations of works take on their own copyright as if they were original works. This would not be a problem for the two books you list (presuming the game is indeed in English), but might very well be a problem for other books. If you are using a translation of a public domain book, ensure the translation itself is public domain as well.
  • Non-public domain material might be inserted into public domain material. Good examples of this are illustrations added after the initial publishing and front matter added by later publishers. Similar to translations, you should ensure the actual edition of the book you are using is entirely public domain. Almost all in-print copies of public domain works are not themselves entirely public domain on these grounds.
  • Adaptations are copyrightable. As stated above, anything added to public domain works can be under copyright. This of course applies to full-on adaptations. If you are using merely the text of the original books, this should not be a concern. However, were you to be employing copyrightable material from these stories beyond just inclusion of the base material (for example, using character names), you would want to be aware of what elements of the work might have come latter. For example, Disney adaptations of out of copyright works.
  • Be aware of trademarks. This goes along with adaptations: it is possible certain words or names have been trademarked. Again, this should not be an issue if you're using the original material verbatim, but could impact games which are adapting the material more broadly.

As others have noted, being in or out of print has nothing to do with copyright status, beyond my point above that in-print versions of public domain works likely contain copyrighted materials added later.

Project Gutenberg is a good source if you are planning on marketing in/from the US only, and generally a good source for accurate publishing dates on specific versions of books.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you know to what extent and in what cases things like typesetting or layout would be considered copyrightable? I would expect that if one had a physical book of a public domain work printed in the US before 1975 and that book did not include any notice of copyright for the book itself, the lack of such notice would invalidate any copyright interest the publisher could have held with respect to the layout, making scanned images of the work distributable, but the elimination of the notice requirement in 1976 would seem to make that unreliable. \$\endgroup\$ – supercat Aug 9 '15 at 21:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @supercat That's getting into stuff I am not so sure on. My understanding is that a "faithful reproduction" like a scan is not inherently copyrightable in the US, but I think there are some exceptions to that. As for typesetting, I have no idea if that's even copyrightable. I know font faces (as opposed to fonts) are not. \$\endgroup\$ – user59192 Aug 10 '15 at 0:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @supercat In this specific case you would probably not want to use scans, anyway, because of the greatly increased size requirements and lower quality of text in an image vs. pixel-perfect text rendering. \$\endgroup\$ – user59192 Aug 10 '15 at 0:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ For this particular situation, I would agree that one likely wouldn't want to include full graphic scans of every page. On the other hand, if some aspects of a layout were copyrighted, a recreation of that layout with modern tools would be a derived work. While most layouts probably wouldn't be copyrightable, a setting of a public-domain text using varying font sizes, angles, and spacing to create a picture of a cat almost certainly would be. The cases I'd wonder most about would be those where a text is set to create simpler shapes like trapezoids, circles, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – supercat Aug 10 '15 at 17:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @supercat I doubt you'd realistically be able to do that without modifying the original work to such an extent it would be considered a different work anyway. Making word art out of the Iliad wouldn't really be any different than making it out of Lorem Ipsum in terms of it being an original artistic work. However, that goes well beyond simple formatting you might see in a book, such as italicization and weighting, and I'm skeptical those are copyrightable alone. Besides, most OCR text is plaintext and any formatting would likely be original (indents and the like). \$\endgroup\$ – user59192 Aug 10 '15 at 17:33
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"Would I run into any legal trouble if I included an out of print book in the public domain, such as Pride and Prejudice or Alice in Wonderland?"

Careful there, out of print has nothing to do with public domain. A book can be public domain and still be in print, or it can be out of print without being public domain. Also, a book can be public domain in one country and still have 50 years copyright protection in another. And if I were to write a new translation of the Bible, maybe even add a couple illustrations, that new translation would not be public domain, unless I as the rights holder say so.

A book is either public domain because the rights holder decided to make it public domain, or it's public domain because the copyright has expired.

You can use anything that's public domain to make a profit. You can even print the book and sell it. You can use public domain models in your game, public domain textures, and public domain music. Careful with the music: just because Beethoven lived a long time ago does not mean a 20 year old recording of a piece written by Beethoven is public domain - it's not.

EDIT: If you can make out the rights holder you might even be able to include content that still has a copyright. Just ask them and they might say yes. It's publicity, after all.

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I'm not a game developer, but I just happened to stumble across your question. I am a writer and journalist, and I've written about copyright many times in the past.

If you're specifically thinking of Alice in Wonderland, the answer to your question is an unqualified YES. The book is old enough that the copyright has expired everywhere in the world, so you can do whatever you like with it: Publish excerpts or the full-text within your game, base parts of the game or the whole thing on it, turn Alice into a crack addict living on Mars, whatever you want. That's what "public domain" means. It's out of copyright and ANYONE IN THE PUBLIC has the right to use it. In the U.S. especially it's sometimes difficult to know if something's in the public domain, but you can safely assume that anything from the 19th century (Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, etc. etc.) is fair game. In fact, most works up to 1922 or so are probably fair game, but then it starts to get complicated.

Yes, you should avoid making your visualizations of the characters look too much like the Disney versions, but don't let them scare you away either.

Also, if you just wanted to show a book on a bookshelf, without actually showing any of the content, you can legitimately show the title of ANY book, even if it's still protected by copyright. Copyright doesn't protect the titles of books, only the content of the story. You might want to avoid book titles that are also big franchise trademarks (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Chicken Soup for the Soul) but even there you'd probably be within your rights to use them. You just don't want to become the test case.

Good luck with your game!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ In the US, works up to 1922 are generally taken to be in the public domain, though there are some questions about foreign works. The whole of Sherlock Holmes is not in the public domain; the last collection of Sherlock Holmes works by Doyle were published after 1922. You have to be careful with translations, like English versions of Twenty Thousand Leagues. \$\endgroup\$ – prosfilaes Aug 10 '15 at 9:36
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I (not a lawyer) think the correct answer is a little more nuanced. Taking the "Alice in Wonderland" example, the original publication (old edition, paper book) is indeed yours to do whatever you want with. But if you take the xyz publisher's 99'th edition E-Book (or Audio Book, or Book Book), that derivative work can be protected by its own copyright.

So for your example of including a book in a game, if you made your own photo facsimile of an out of copyright edition, you're in the the clear; but if you take advantage of someone else's digitized "Alice" you have to consider what copyright they claim.

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I would say that you could, as public domain means that it's free to be used, however I'm not too sure as far as Moral Rights/Authors Rights are concerned.

Wikipedia says that moral rights (sometimes called "authors rights") are rights retained by the author of a work, even if they no longer hold the copyright. They include the right of attribution (or of not being attributed, at the author's discretion), and the right to ensure the integrity of the work although I'm not sure whether that would hinder you inserting the book into your game.

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I couldn't say anything about the issue in legal terms, but there's another way to look at it. You could count the amount of effort it has taken to create the work. While you examine the works you see available on the net, good measurement unit is the amount of effort spent to create the work. If you create a game, and half the content is copied from otherwise available public domain work, I would only give you credit of the part that you created yourself. How to determine this relies on the following process (known as effort calculation):

  • Split the work to small pieces that can be examined
  • determine author and work amount of each piece individually
  • Sum the work amounts to get a total amounnt of effort
  • Compare the work amount to what is possible to be created by the number of people claiming to be the original authors

This process allows examining the quality of the work you know is available on the internet. If you include alot of public domain content to your work, then this evaluation process will give bad results for your content, and thus people who look at the quality will determine it to be bad quality. So better not rely on large amounts of work created by someone else.

EDIT: given some comments, I would like to clarify that this process would be useful for understanding how publishers are looking at a products they encounter in the legal environment. This process can detect several issues with the products, including non-original content in the product.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I do not quite understand this answer. For a start, I doubt "count[ing] the amount of effort it has taken to create the work" is a good quality indicator. The tiniest background details might mean an awful lot of effort to create, while other parts of the product that are much more apparent to most users and influence their impression/satisfaction resulting from using the product a lot more might require much less effort in comparison. You assume "half the content is copied", even though the OP doesn't actually describe it like that. An in-game bookshelf with a readable book does not ... \$\endgroup\$ – O. R. Mapper Aug 7 '15 at 20:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ ... sound like "half the content" in a conceptual sense. It might be half the content space-wise (if it's a small game and a big book), but even then, it is questionable to "count" content in a way that adds up the game itself, and integrated bonus material in form of a book, which is something entirely different. Then, I am perplexed by your statement "examining the quality of the work you know is available on the internet" - who says the game described by the OP is "available on the internet"? Or are you talking about the public domain works that are going to be integrated? ... \$\endgroup\$ – O. R. Mapper Aug 7 '15 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ ... If so, are you aware the mentioned titles are considered rather well-known literature? I am not convinced an entity evaluating the quality of games would add any meaningful new insights by reviewing novels that have been reviewed many times before, including by people using processes better suited to evaluate literature than games. Finally, I have read your answer several times, but I still do not understand how you come to the conclusion "then this evaluation process will give bad results for your content". It simply does not seem to make any sense that if, as described in your ... \$\endgroup\$ – O. R. Mapper Aug 7 '15 at 20:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ ... preceding sentence, the public domain work by someone else is evaluated, and from that evaluation, a conclusion on the quality of the OP's own contribution is made. The former has nothing to do with the latter, quality-wise. Therefore, I would kindly like to ask you to rewrite or clarify your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – O. R. Mapper Aug 7 '15 at 20:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ "You need to evaluate the whole published work." - says who? Evaluate with what goals in mind, considering which use case? Why should the time required to create the artifact be of any importance? Certainly, the customer doesn't care about this aspect. Are you talking about evaluating a game created by employees, and thereby indirectly evaluating their work performance? If the game contains a well-known book such as Alice in Wonderland, it is obvious the game authors did not write the book. Why would we need to indirectly find out about that by means of computing the working time? ... \$\endgroup\$ – O. R. Mapper Aug 7 '15 at 20:51

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