As someone interested in making money online with a minimal fuss, you may have heard of selling public domain works.
Essentially this opportunity involves finding printed works that have fallen out of copyright – or that were never copyrighted – and republishing and selling them for a profit.
You can take all or portions of the work and produce your own version (preferably online) and sell it. And you don’t have to compensate (or get permission from) the original author, their family, the publisher, or anybody else.
This eliminates the biggest hassles of product creation – coming up with a profitable idea… and, of course, actually writing and producing a product.
You might think this involves only taking a whole public domain book and turning it into an ebook. But there is another way to approach this business that has much more money-making potential – well beyond what you’d get for selling copies of some classic book for $10 a pop. I’ll get to that in a second, but first… how the heck do you figure out if a printed work is in the public domain?
What’s in the Public Domain?
A general rule of thumb is that any work published before 1923 is in the public domain. Any work created between 1923 and 1978 that was never copyrighted is also fair game. And any work published between 1923 and 1963 that DID NOT have its copyright renewed is also in the public domain.
Anything published after 1963 is a bit tricky and best avoided as anything published from then on won’t be public domain until 95 years after the publication date or 70 years after the death of the author, depending on a few factors. Of course, in either case that makes them well out of reach of a business you want to start now. (But tell your kids and grandkids.)
Now, all these different requirements and guidelines are the result of laws and regulations changing over the years.
When all is said and done, the best resource for determining for sure whether or not a work is in the public domain is the U.S. government’s Copyright Office. Just go here, http://www.copyright.gov/rb.html, and enter the name of the book to find out its copyright status.
You might be thinking, “Why the heck would somebody in 2012 buy a book first published before 1923?”
Well, how about the Bible? Or Shakespeare’s plays?
The truth is that there are certain universal truths and knowledge that people today or people thousands years ago want to know more about.
So even “old” books can find a ready audience in today’s online marketplace.
An Awesome Resource for Content that Grows Every Day
Government documents are all in the public domain. And you can feel free to collect and sell any combination of this publicly available information. Notice I said publicly available – that means any citizen can get a copy themselves. But most are too lazy to do that. Plus, they don’t want to put in the work to gather resources from different agencies and departments.
That’s where you come in. You collect relevant data and sell it to those people who want and need it.
For example, let’s say you run across a Food and Drug Administration report on prescription drug combinations that can be fatal. Don’t you think many people, especially seniors who take a lot of medication, would be interested in – and willing to pay – for that information?
Put together a low-cost special report with the FDA findings and other information from government documents about prescription drug safety… and you could have a bestseller without writing one word.
How to Take Public Domain to the Next Level
No matter what market or niche you cover with your online business, there is sure to be a public domain work you can sell, either in the original or modified format (you’ll see what I mean in just a minute).
But you don’t have to settle for reprinting old books or government reports. In fact, that’s what you shouldn’t do if you decide to enter this market. With public domain works, you have the option of adding value to the original work, and this ensures that you can charge much more money.
Let me explain.
Let’s say you want to sell Sun Tzu’s famous tome, The Art of War. Written centuries ago by a Chinese general, it outlines effective military tactics, including how to react to changing conditions on the battlefield and how effective planning is key to victory.
To be honest, there are many editions of The Art of War out there. Yours would probably get lost in the shuffle.
But there is a way to easily set your edition apart from the rest. Yes, it’ll take a bit of work. But Sun Tzu has already done the most of it for you. There are several ways you can go about this:
First off, you could put your own spin on the content and show how Sun Tzu’s lessons could be applied to another subject, parenting or running a business, for example.
So you take the original work and add in your commentary and interpretation on how these lessons can be applied to these present-day topics. New titles: The Art of War for Entrepreneurs or The Art of Parenting: Applying Ancient Chinese Military Strategies to the War at Home.
With your version you can be funny, irreverent… or serious and respectful. It’s really up to you. But because you’ve added value, you can charge your customers much more. And they’ll gladly pay it because they’re receiving this important advice that applies directly to their life situation.
But that’s just the first – and easiest – way to add value to a public domain work.
You can go one step further and create a whole program or course. Continuing The Art of War example, that could mean putting together, say, a webinar series on using its strategies as a parent. All you’d have to do is break down the book into sections and, using that outline, create a little PowerPoint presentation that you narrate.
Using programs like Camtasia makes this very easy to do.
Along with the webinars there could be workbooks and transcripts of the webinar. All this added value would allow you to charge even more.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
The best – and most lucrative – way to sell public domain products is to make them your own.
Get Started Today
If you have a niche for your online business and are hoping public domain can help you create products quickly and easily, you’ve got a leg up.
If not, your first step is to determine a niche for your business. Or you can simply browse public domain books until you find one that you’d like to sell, one that matches your philosophy or life interests.
To find a public domain work, simply do an online search for books related to the topics and themes of your business. I recommend Google Book Search, as it allows you to search for books between specific dates. So you can limit results to pre-1963 or pre-1923 books, which you know are in the public domain.
Then double-check that the book is in the public domain by visiting the Copyright Office site.
Once you have your original work, you should determine how you’ll put your own stamp on it to create a unique and saleable product.
Could you create an educational program based on its lessons? Maybe you could add your own commentary and interpretations. Really, the sky is the limit as you can repurpose these works any way you’d like.
So, find your public domain work… put your spin on it… and start selling it online.
P.S. There are several online databases and tools that will help you find public domain books on just about any subject.
Google Book Search – books.google.com. The best place to find copies of public domain works.
Government Printing Office – http://www.gpoaccess.gov/. This is a clearinghouse for all the documents printed by the federal government.
Project Gutenberg – http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/. A great place to find copies of public domain books that you can use as the basis for your own versions. Just be sure to follow their guidelines, including removing mentions of Project Gutenberg.
Cornell University publishes a very thorough guide to what is and what isn’t in the public domain, including works produced overseas: http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm
Public Domain Sherpa offers some great guidelines for creating derivative works and compilations based on public domain works: http://www.publicdomainsherpa.com/public-domain-books.html.
Camtasia is a handy tool for creating multimedia presentations based on public domain books: www.camtasia.com.