Asked in Copyright

Q: Can anything hinder me from using PUBLIC DOMAIN books in a videogame I'm making? I want them to be readable in the game

There will be shelves in some of this videogame's settings, and I want the books that are on them to be readable. It's a game that talks about philosophy, mysticism and psychology. The books wouldn't be a "must" to succeed in any stage of the game, but they'll just add to the depth of the worldbuilding, showing for exemple specific characters' personal tastes, the page or chapter they've been reading or even notes they wrote while reading. The story is settled in the end of the 19th century, so I really won't be using anything that has been published after that. Could I still face copyright issues from using public domain books and/or editions from the 19th century or even before?

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2 Lawyer Answers
Gabriel A Watson
Gabriel A Watson
  • Portland, OR

A: Generally speaking, In the United States, the term "public domain" is used to describe creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws. With some exceptions, anyone can use works within the public domain--and nobody can own them. This means that you can use works that are in the public domain without permission.

As I understand your question, you intend to use books that predate the 19th century. If you limit the virtual library to books that were written before 1900, you should have no problem at all. Keep in mind however that pulling text of a book that is in the public domain from a 'collection' for example, that was curated or published after January 1, 1925, you could overstep the privilege. Similarly, if you were to use the cover art from a post-1925 edition of a book that is otherwise in the public domain, that might also violate the artist's copyright protections. that too could expose you to copyright violations.

To determine the true copyright date of a given work, you can research the records of the Copyright Office to determine when the copyrights were granted and if the copyright was renewed. If, when viewing a work, you come across language such as: "This work is dedicated to the public domain," that means the work is free to long as the person making the dedication had the right to do so. Only the owner of a copyright, which may be different than the creator, has the right to make such dedications.

The Standford University Library website is an excellent resource to help understanding fair use law. The URL for fair use is

Barbara Berschler agrees with this answer

Barbara Berschler
Barbara Berschler
  • Intellectual Property Lawyer
  • Rockville, MD

A: Just a thought to add to Mr. Watson's excellent answer to your question, and that is how do you intend to portray the books on the shelves appearing in the game and then how game players can access the books or portions of a book that a specific character may have read. There could be some intellectual property issues buried in the visual presentation which should also be explored. Good luck, it sounds like an interesting game concept.

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